Due to Hurricane Irma and a pair of early-season game cancellations, the UMass Minutemen and Florida International Panthers will face off for a third consecutive season in a matchup that wasn’t even on the schedule to start.
Mark Whipple’s Minutemen (4-7) will attempt to secure their first five-win season at the FBS level by knocking off FIU for the third year in a row on Saturday. Despite an 0-6 start, UMass has been in top form of late, winning four of its last five contests. And the Minutemen’s only loss during that stretch was arguably their most impressive performance of 2017, giving nationally ranked Mississippi State a serious run for its money in Starkville.
Butch Davis has already worked wonders for a struggling FIU program in just his first year as head coach. Davis has led the Panthers to a 7-4 overall record, a second-place finish in Conference USA’s Eastern Division, and a likely bowl berth for the first time since 2011. They capped off their conference schedule last week by scoring 28 unanswered points to beat defending C-USA champion Western Kentucky by a score of 41-17. The Panthers will now look to exact a little revenge at home against a UMass team that has gotten the better of them in each of the previous two seasons.
UMass at FIU
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 2 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: FIU -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Alex McGough
FIU's quarterback didn’t look much like a four-year starter in the first half of the season, tossing more interceptions (6) than touchdowns (5) through the first six games. But he has looked the part of one of the nation’s most experienced signal-callers in the latter half of his senior campaign. Over the last five weeks, McGough (above, right) has thrown nine touchdown passes with just one interception, completing an impressive 69 percent of his pass attempts for an average of 232 passing yards per game.
McGough will look to keep that momentum going on Saturday in his final home game for the Panthers. But it could be a challenge against a solid UMass pass defense that is giving up just 199 yards per game (No. 33 in the FBS) through the air. Adding to the difficulty, McGough must once again overcome the loss of FIU’s top weapon on offense. Senior wide receiver Thomas Owens is expected to miss his third consecutive game on Saturday with a knee injury. Despite missing the last two games, Owens still leads the Panthers in yards from scrimmage (887), touchdowns (6) and receptions (59). It serves as a big blow to FIU’s passing attack. However, McGough has managed to make due utilizing a wide variety of targets in the last two games.
2. UMass’ “Big 3” on offense
The FIU defense will certainly have its hands full against three of the best offensive weapons it has faced all season. UMass junior quarterback Andrew Ford is the catalyst for one of the nation’s top passing attacks (No. 23 in the FBS). Despite missing the better part of three games this season, Ford has thrown for 2,575 yards with an exceptional 18:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Ford’s go-to target, wide receiver Andy Isabella, is another big reason for UMass’ success through the air. Isabella has already accumulated 1,043 yards from scrimmage to go along with 10 touchdowns during his junior season. He’s racked up 22 catches for 394 yards and five touchdowns in his last three games alone.
While running the football isn’t UMass’ strong suit, the Minutemen do have a capable weapon at running back in Marquis Young. The versatile junior has amassed 1,093 yards from scrimmage (857 rushing yards with a 5.2 ypc), making nine trips to the end zone on the year. Young is just as dangerous as a pass catcher (28 receptions) as he is running the football.
3. UMass kryptonite?
If there is a weakness in the Minutemen’s high-powered passing attack, it is the offensive line. UMass has allowed a ridiculous 45 sacks in 11 games, the second most of any team in the FBS. And while FIU doesn’t exactly have the most explosive pass rush, compiling just 21 sacks on the season, the Panthers have a pair of capable pass rushers that should be able to exploit UMass’ leaky O-line.
Junior defensive end Fermin Silva is a high-motor guy that leads the Panthers with six sacks and ranks third in Conference USA with 14.5 tackles for a loss. Fellow junior defensive lineman, Anthony Johnson, has 4.5 sacks in the last three contests alone. Look for FIU to unleash this duo at every opportunity. It will be crucial to get pressure on Ford if the Panthers are going to find success on defense in this matchup.
FIU has undergone a remarkable turnaround in its first season under Butch Davis. And when this game was scheduled back in September, the Panthers probably felt confident that they would be able to cruise to an easy victory over the Minutemen and get a little payback in the process. However, UMass has enjoyed a pretty remarkable turnaround of its own since the mid-point of the season and FIU probably couldn’t have picked a worse time to face the Minutemen. It should be a hard-fought matchup, but UMass will ride the wave of momentum provided by its red-hot passing attack and pull off the upset in Miami.
Prediction: UMass 31, FIU 27
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.