FIU has already taken care of one Owl team this season in Florida Atlantic getting the Don Shula Trophy back on campus. However, the Panthers face a different breed of Owl on Saturday in Rice, which is a much better team than FAU.
As always you can hear the call of FIU football on ESPN 1210 AM on Saturday with Mike Levine and yours truly starting at 11:30 a.m. with the pregame show when we will be joined as always by former FIU linebacker James Knapp. WBFS Channel 33 in South Florida is picking up the ASN broadcast. But turn down the sound and listen to us.
Rice (4-3, 2-1 C-USA), 2013 Conference USA champions, has won four straight games and looking to get back to the C-USA championship game. The Owls have plenty of momentum going into Saturday with both its offense and defense clicking after an 0-3 start.
After defeating UAB and FAU to start conference play, FIU (3-5, 2-2 C-USA) wants to get back in the win column and possibly start a run to the postseason. These Owls will be a challenge for the Panthers because of an improved defense and a smart, mobile quarterback. But here is how FIU can win Saturday's game.
COOK THE RICE RUN GAME: Rice employs a run-first offense but can also hit a defense with the play-action pass, especially if the running game is humming. The FIU defense needs to shut down the Owls rushers. Rice has a pair of solid running backs in Jowan Davis and Darik Dillard, who are each averaging more than four yards per carry. Additionally, FIU has to be wary of quarterback Driphus Jackson, who is a very mobile quarterback. If you follow the history of FIU football, then you know the Panthers defense over the years has had its share of issues with running quarterbacks. Jackson can throw the ball and if the Owls are running well then the play-action pass could hurt the FIU D. Rice receiver Jordan Taylor, who stands 6-5, has been deadly over the middle of the field and that's where opposing defenses have tested the FIU defense this season.
BEAN THE RICE D WITH THE RUN: Despite the loss of Alex Gardner, FIU has to establish a respectable run game against Rice. The Owls offense loves to control the clock with its run game and if the FIU offense has several three-and-outs that could leave the FIU D vulnerable during the 12 noon game despite temperatures not expected to be as warm as the September 12 noon game against Pittsburgh earlier this season. Anthon Samuel is expected to start at running back with a committee of backs giving Samuel a breather when need be. Samuel, who had a great start to his college career at Bowling Green being named MAC Freshman of the Year, is capable of putting up good run numbers. FIU will need to complement that with an efficient passing game.
MAKE THIRD DOWN THE FIRST GOAL: Yes, the FIU offense needs to improve on its third down conversion rate. The FIU defense will have a task on its hands stopping Rice on third down. The Owls have converted 47 percent of their third downs which is good for 17th in the nation among 125 Division I teams. The FIU D is no slouch on third down as the Panthers have the 21st best rate stopping teams on third down. The Owls have had this success because of their run game. Getting good yardage on the ground on first and second down sets up the Rice offense for third down and manageable yardage. The goal for the FIU defense is get to the Rice offense on first and second downs to make it third and long for the Owls. Make Rice one-dimensional on offense and have the Owls go away from their strength of the running game.
EARLY RISERS: The first quarter has not been Rice's friend with the Owls being outscored 63-38 this season. Meanwhile the first quarter is the only quarter FIU has outscored its opponents this season 44-27. This is FIU's second noon kickoff this season and a fast start would go a long way toward a victory Saturday. Get a jump on Rice at home and make the Owls try to come back throwing the ball is a start FIU would take. Opponents have shied away from kicking to Richard Leonard in recent weeks but maybe Leonard gets an opportunity to return a kick all the way back to get things going early. Or an FIU defensive score puts Rice in the hole at the outset.