Time and Date: 3:30 PM ET – September 24
Broadcast Network: CBS Sports Network (Play-By-Play: Chick Hernandez/Analyst: Randy Cross)
Radio: 1140 AM Univision Miami-Fort Lauderdale (Play-By-Play: A.J. Ricketts/Analyst: Corey Brooks)/100.7 WKLX-FM/102.7 FM Hilltopper IMG Radio Network (Play-By-Play: Randy Lee/Analyst: Terry Obee/Lexi Schweinert)
Online streaming: You can also tune in online with FuboTV (Try for free.)
Location: Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium – Bowling Green, KY
ESPN FPI: WKU 96.7%
Line: WKU -30*
Point Total: O/U 64.5*
All-Time Series: Western Kentucky has won nine of 15 meetings. WKU has also won the last three meetings, including last season when the Tops won 34-19 in Miami.
Through three games, Western Kentucky leads C-USA in points per game with 39. Since Austin Reed won the starting QB job, there’s been little to no question as to why. Reed is completing 69.2% of his passes with nine touchdowns through the air – a total only lower than N’Kosi Perry’s (10) in C-USA.
The Tops are 2-1 to start the year following last week’s OT loss to Indiana. The loss to Indiana sticks out for a few reasons. One, Indiana completed 33 passes against the Tops’ secondary. Their first two opponents only had 21 and 22, respectively. Second, it was the strongest example yet of WKU’s defensive fourth quarter issues. They’re allowing 12 points per game in the final frame.
Even so, the Tops’ defense are tied for second in FBS with seven interceptions. When the secondary plays aggressively and the defensive line applies adequate pressure, good things happen.
Also worth noting, the Tops were 4-1 last season when favored at home. They’re favored by 30 heading into this matchup.
“We’re excited to be at home to start conference play,” head coach Tyson Helton said this week. “To travel all over…it really shows our endurance and how we can withstand a lot of pressure. But it’s good to get back to where we’re comfortable and our guys love playing in our home stadium. So it will be nice to be back home this week.”
After the Panthers’ 41-12 loss at Texas State two weeks ago, FIU head coach Mike MacIntyre intimated that the upcoming bye week was coming at an excellent time for his youthful club.
“Typically, you would want the bye later in the season but for us being such a young football team, I really think helps us get a chance to evaluate our guys after two games and also get some players healthy,” said MacIntyre.
In terms of the evaluation process, a large focus has to be placed on the Panthers’ quarterback situation, which has become almost even more murky after two weeks than it was entering the season.
After Duke transfer Gunnar Holmberg was knocked out of the team’s season-opener early in the third quarter with a concussion, sophomore Grayson James helped rally the team to a 38-37, come-from-behind victory. However, James was unable to build on that success in his first career start at Texas State, going 30-of-47 for 196 yards with two interceptions in the loss. Third-year quarterback Haden Carlson earned his first collegiate action in the final drive of that game, going 5-of-9 for 55 yards.
“We’ve been running all three guys with the first team and we’ll continue to do that,” said MacIntyre. “We plan to make a decision after Wednesday’s practice — we may or we may not make that decision public.”
On the injury front, the Panthers’ offensive line sorely needed the week’s rest, as a young group that hasn’t played many games together is already banged up. Veteran tackle Lyndell Hudson Jr. has battled a back injury since Fall and is still not 100%. Redshirt sophomore Julius Pierce split reps with true freshman John Bock at center two weeks ago and spoke about his injury during Tuesday’s media availability.
“Second play of the game vs Bryant, got injured in a back block and I’m dealing with a high ankle sprain but it’s gonna take more than that to get me out of here, I’ll be good and I’ll be available on Saturday.”
MacIntyre noted that they’re still in the process of shifting players across the unit that features a true freshman (Bock), two first-time starters (Pierce and Shamar Hobdy-Lee) and a player new to the FBS level in Jacob Peace.
“We’re moving some guys into different spots, trying to find that spots for the group to gel,” said MacIntyre.
The group has looked every bit of the youth during the first two games, as FIU signal-callers have been under duress consistently and the rushing attack is averaging just 2.6 yards per attempt.
Star wideout Tyrese Chambers will look for his first 100-yard receiving day of 2022. The Biletnikoff Award watchlist member has been the focal point of opposing team’s gameplans after his record-setting 2021 campaign and he’s noticed the difference in the way teams are playing him.
“I’ve seen different coverages before, but I’ve never seen a safety just run over the top to focus on me,” said Chambers. “It’s frustrating, but the most I can do is keep my head down and keep working and open up opportunities for myself and my teammates.”
Defensively, keep an eye on the Panthers’ secondary, who will be tested by a very potent Western Kentucky passing attack.
“They’re a very explosive offense with playmakers at running back and receiver,” said MacIntyre. “You see the arm strength of (Austin) Reed, it pops off on film. He’s an extremely talented thrower.”
Sophomore cornerback Henry Gray noted the challenge that the unit is in for on Saturday.
“They have a lot of speed at wide receiver, we know what they have but we feel like we can cover it up good, we just have to play our game,” said Gray.
Joe Londergan: We’ve talked about the inexperience of FIU’s offense plenty. I think that’s really going to come through, provided WKU plays a bit more aggressively in this contest. I think WKU wins 42-14.
Eric Henry: As has been consistently preached by MacIntyre, this rebuild is a process and in game three, it’s still in its infancy. Joe notes the FIU offense, but the Panthers’ defense is what I’m looking at. How will they fare against an extremely potent Western passing attack and a talented offensive line, specifically Quantavious Leslie and Rusty Staats. In the end, Western bounces back in a big way, 49-17.