Thanks to winning its first three Conference USA games this season FIU is in a good spot atop C-USA's East Division tied with WKU at 3-1. With four division games left in the regular season, the Panthers (3-5 overall) control whether they win the division and a spot in the C-USA championship game or become bowl-eligible by notching six victories.
That is what's at stake in the remaining four games of the regular season but it won't be easy by any means for FIU starting with Saturday's opponent. The four-game season-closing gauntlet begins with Middle Tennessee, then a game at WKU, followed by hosting Marshall and closing the season at Old Dominion.
Middle Tennessee (2-1 C-USA) is on a roll as it comes to Miami and just half a game back of FIU and WKU for the division lead. The Blue Raiders upset SEC member Missouri 51-45 last week on the road. MT exploded for 595 yards of total offense with 311 of those yards on the ground. Defending the run has not been the forte of the FIU defense this season. FIU did keep Louisiana Tech under its season yardage averages last week but the Panthers defense has given up more than 200 rushing yards in a game in five of eight games this season. MT running back I'Tavius Mathers leads C-USA in rushing with 940 yards and has 11 touchdowns.
FIU will have to deal with more than just the Middle Tennessee run as you might expect from the conference's top offense. Quarterback Brent Stockstill is right up there statistically with LA Tech QB Ryan Higgins. Stockstill is second to Higgins in C-USA averaging 338.7 passing yards per game. Receiver Richie James is third in C-USA with 129 receiving yards per game. James has 905 receiving yards and six touchdowns on the season.
With an offense as vaunted as Middle Tennessee's, FIU has to limit the big plays. The Panthers did that for the most part last week against LA Tech. I don't include the kickoff return touchdown and long interception return here because the defense wasn't on the field for those two. Last week's game would have been a 30-24 LA Tech win instead of 44-24 without those two plays. I know hindsight is 20/20.
The Blue Raiders' season-low in rushing was 96 yards at Vanderbilt (47-24 MT loss) and their season-low in passing was 278 yards at Bowling Green (41-21 MT win). Other than those two games, MT (5-2) has rushed for 158 yards or more in its other six games and thrown for 284 yards or more in those games. So MT is going to get its yards against anyone but the Panthers have to make the Blue Raiders work for it and not give up the easy scores.
Unlike last week and two weeks ago against Charlotte, FIU MUST get its running game going. The 49ers and Bulldogs stacked the box defensively against the Panthers and stuffed the run. FIU will have to loosen up the MT defense with some completed passes to give Alex Gardner and company some running room. And with success rushing also comes the added bonus of controlling the clock and keeping the MT offense on the sideline. FIU has to sustain long drives and convert third downs.
As you might expect with Middle Tennessee having the top offense in the conference, the City of Neon Lights thinks MT is a Ryan Tannehill jersey number better than FIU. Weather could be a factor in Saturday's game. The forecast for Saturday's 7 p.m. kickoff calls for isolated thunderstorms (30 percent chance of rain) and 78 degrees. Rain could make handling the football tricky and possibly help to slow down the MT offense.
You can catch Saturday's game on The Ticket 790 AM with Josh Appel and myself calling the game. At the start of last week's game, The Ticket had the wrong stream on-line but got our game on there shortly after the kickoff after some fans tweeted me that they weren't hearing the game.