Coming off facing one offensive juggernaut in Louisiana Tech last week, FIU gets another one this week when Middle Tennessee comes to town. The Blue Raiders are second in several offensive categories in Conference USA.
However, Middle Tennessee now has the top offense in C-USA in total yards thanks to the Panthers keeping the Bulldogs under their yardage average last week. The Blue Raiders are averaging 548.9 yards per game which is tops in C-USA. MT is second in the conference in rushing (194.4 yards per game) and second in passing (354.4 yards per game). The FIU defense will have its hands full Saturday.
It should come as no surprise that the Blue Raiders have a rusher (I'Tavius Mathers - 134.3 ypg, 1st), passer (Brent Stockstill - 2,371 passing yards, 3rd) and receiver (Richie James - 129.3 ypg, 3rd) in the top three among the C-USA stat leaders.
The FIU defense made some stops last week against LA Tech to give the Panthers offense a chance. If you take away the LA Tech interception return to inside the FIU 5 and Carlos Henderson's kickoff return for a touchdown and the game score is 30-24.
I know, if ifs and buts were candies and nuts we'd all have a party. But the point being that the Panthers defense made some plays to keep the score within reach. Yes, the FIU defense also gave up plays. What the defense will need this week against MT that they didn't get last week is at least one turnover to limit the Blue Raiders possessions.
There were times last week when the FIU offense moved the ball well against LA Tech, particularly on the opening drive, the drive near the end of the first half and some drives in the second half. But the Panthers couldn't get anything going on the drives in the first half between their two scores and that cost them any chance of staying with LA Tech.
FIU needs to capitalize on as many drives as possible against MT and the Panthers might get the chance. The Blue Raiders are in the middle of the pack defensively in C-USA. MT allows 175.4 rushing yards per game and 253.6 passing yards per game. Last week in MT's upset of Missouri, the Blue Raiders allowed more than 300 yards rushing.
What FIU will have to figure out is how to get the running game going again like it had against Florida Atlantic and UTEP. In the last two weeks, Charlotte and LA Tech limited FIU to a total of 106 rushing yards -- 39 rushing yards against Charlotte and 67 yards against LA Tech. The 49ers and Bulldogs stacked the box and dared FIU to beat them through the air.
The Panthers threw the ball well against the 49ers late in the game and had some success passing against the Bulldogs, but also had some empty series against LA Tech. FIU will have a tough time keeping up with Middle Tennessee's offense if it strictly relies on the passing game.
FIU (3-1) is currently tied with Western Kentucky for the lead in C-USA's East Division. Middle Tennessee and Old Dominion are half a game back at 2-1. The final four games for the Panthers are all division games (MT, WKU, Marshall and Old Dominion).
Throughout the FIU/Middle Tennessee series history, which began in 2005 with FIU safety Kent Henderson knocking down a Hail Mary pass in the end zone on the final play to preserve a 35-31 win, there have been some wild and high-scoring games. Just two years ago, FIU rallied from a 21-3 deficit against MT to win 38-28. With two teams that can score points, Saturday's game could be another wild one.