FIU (1-7) at Middle Tennessee (5-4)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Saturday, November 9, 4 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Floyd Stadium (30,788) -- Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Television: FOX College Sports. Home Record: FIU 0-5, Middle Tennessee 3-1. Away Record: FIU 1-2, Middle Tennessee 2-3. Neutral Record: FIU 0-0, Middle Tennessee 0-0. Conference Record: FIU 1-3, Middle Tennessee 3-2. Series Record: Middle Tennessee leads, 5-4.
GAME NOTES: In a Conference USA battle between two teams from the East Division, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders will bring in the FIU Panthers to Floyd Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The first season for FIU in C-USA has not been one with many positives. The Panthers have just a single win in eight games and are entering this contest on the heels of a three-game losing streak. FIU is fortunate enough that its lone win came in league play, with a 24-23 triumph over Southern Miss, but the Panthers are just 1-3 in league play overall.
Middle Tennessee owns a 3-2 mark against the league and a 5-4 overall mark at this point in the season. The past few weeks have featured some tense moments. Last Saturday the Blue Raiders pulled out a 24-21 victory over UAB on a last- second field goal from Cody Clark. That win came after a 51-49 upset of Marshall that was secured on a nine-yard touchdown pass from Logan Kilgore to Tavarres Jefferson as time expired.
A 34-30 win for the Blue Raiders gave them their third victory in the last four meetings with the Panthers, while also pulling them ahead in the all-time series by a count of 5-4.
For the first time this season E.J. Hilliard got the start for FIU when it faced East Carolina last time out. Hilliard came in for Jake Medlock and completed 21-of-33 passes, but totaled just 194 yards and was intercepted once, while being sacked nine times. Protection has been an issue for both quarterbacks with the Panthers offensive line allowing 34 sacks on the campaign. Hilliard is listed as the starter again according to the FIU depth chart.
With Hilliard in the starting spot it is likely that Jonnu Smith will be an important part of the gameplan again this week. The tight end had 10 receptions for 97 yards last week. Both totals were more than the rest of the team combined. Smith leads the team with 26 receptions, for 258 yards and two scores. T.J. Lowder (17 receptions, 232 yards, two TDs) is the second option.
In terms of running the ball, those duties are shared by Lamarq Caldwell (288 yards, TD) and Silas Spearman (281 yards, four TDs). Caldwell had more success against ECU with 53 yards on 10 carries, but Caldwell again proved to be the more vital back as he scored a touchdown, while rushing for only 29 yards on 17 carries.
In all the Panthers have been an extremely weak offensive team. They are dead last in C-USA and nationally in total yards (225.1 ypg). They are also the only team in the league to have fewer than 1,700 yards passing and 600 yards rushing.
Surprisingly, FIU isn't as big a disaster on defense. Though certainly not one of the league's elite, the Panthers are ahead of a handful of other squads in total defense (400.5 ypg) and points allowed (36.8 ppg). However, that is more of a comment on the defensive weakness of C-USA than anything else. Greg Hickman (30 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) provides the only real force in the pass rush.
Middle Tennessee is a far superior offensive squad than FIU. However, compared to the rest of the league, the Blue Raiders aren't very effective, ranking ninth in the conference in total yards (374.6 ypg).
The offense was able to overcome the absence of leading rusher Jordan Parker in its win over UAB thanks to the efforts of Reggie Whatley. Although the second rushing option this season, Whatley has been impressive, racking up 602 yards and three scores on 88 carries. Whatley had 155 yards on just 15 carries against UAB and if PArker, who is listed as questionable with a foot injury this week, is unable to play, Whatley is more than capable of handling the job.
Kilgore guides the offensive ship for the Blue Raiders. Kilgore hasn't been blowing people away but he has been at least competent, completing 60 percent of his passes, for 1,523 yards and 12 scores. However, Kilgore has thrown 10 interceptions.
It's no surprise that Kilgore looked for Jefferson in that last-second throw against Marshall. Jefferson leads the team in receptions (33) and yards (416) while having found the end zone twice. Kyle Griswould (29 receptions, 253 yards, four TDs) is more utilized in the red zone, while Marcus Henry (24 receptions, 353 yards, two TDs) is coming off an extremely impressive effort against UAB when he had 136 of the team's 160 passing yards, including a 93- yard touchdown reception.
Middle Tennessee has been a bit better in stopping teams from scoring (31 ppg), but slightly worse in total defense (436.1 ypg). What has really helped is the Blue Raiders' skill in forcing miscues. Middle Tennessee has forced the third-most turnovers in the conference (24), led by three interceptions from Kevin Byard, who is second on the team in tackles, behind T.T. Barber (99).
To this point Middle Tennessee has surprised a bit by remaining competitive in C-USA. The same cannot be said for FIU, which has had little success on offense. Hilliard may complete passes at a better rate than Medlock, but he hasn't shown that he can make the Panthers viable on that side of the ball. The Blue Raiders, led by Whatley and/or Parker, will be too much for FIU to keep up with.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Middle Tennessee 30, FIU 12
11/06 10:48:06 ET