Asst. Sports Director
All season long, I’ve been writing about whether or not FIU would be able to win six games and become eligible for a bowl game for the first time in four years.
At first I thought they were a shoo-in, but after inexcusable losses to the University of Massachusetts and Florida Atlantic University, my optimism began to disappear.
Now, there’s no more debate or question as to what the Panthers need to do; they either reach bowl eligibility by winning their final game against Western Kentucky University, or lose to the heavily-favored Hilltoppers and once again go home for the holidays without an invitation to a bowl game.
This crucial game between the Panthers (5-6, 3-4) and Hilltoppers (8-2, 6-0) will take place this Saturday, Nov. 17 at 2:30 p.m.
Led by their high-powered offense, WKU is the only undefeated team in Conference USA. This means that FIU will need to bring everything they’ve got if they want any chance of knocking off the Hilltoppers.
Arguably the biggest advantage that FIU has going for them is certainly that this game is being played at Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium. Despite extremely low and often embarrassing attendance, the Panthers are 4-0 at home this season. The two games WKU have lost this season have been played on the road.
Saturday’s game is also significantly more important for the Panthers than it is for WKU. Regardless of the result, the Hilltoppers must defeat Marshall University, which defeated FIU 52-0 last week, to win the C-USA East division.
For the Panthers, on the other hand, this is their final chance at making a bowl game. If the Panthers can use that extra motivation to fuel their play against WKU, an upset is very possible.
However, It will take a lot more than being motivated to take down a team as talented as WKU. Even though they lost their star running back Leon Allen very early in the season to a season-ending knee injury, the Hilltoppers offense hasn’t missed a beat. WKU ranks tied for 10th in the country in scoring; averaging a ridiculous 41.8 points per game.
FIU’s struggling defense will need to find a way to slow down the dangerous connection of quarterback Brandon Doughty and receiver Taywan Taylor, who was recently named a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award.
I could see each of those stars being playmakers at the next level, which means that the Panthers need their NFL-caliber defensive backs Richard Leonard and Jeremiah McKinnon to step up in their final game at FIU Stadium. It will be very interesting to see whether Leonard or McKinnon will spend more time guarding Taylor and how effective each will be at containing Doughty’s top target.
On offense, the Panthers will need to move past a horrible performance against Marshall and get on the scoreboard early and often when the Hilltoppers come to Miami.
This is a true test for sophomore quarterback Alex McGough. McGough has been playing like a superstar all season long. Now we’ll see if he has what it takes to rise up against the tough competition and bring his Panthers to a bowl game.
Prediction: WKU defeats FIU 45-34. Unless WKU head coach Jeff Brohm elects to sit his star players in preparation for their C-USA East “championship game” with Marshall, I don’t think FIU is equipped to keep up with the Hilltoppers. I expect McGough and sophomore running back Alex Gardner to bounce back and lead the Panthers to a great offensive performance, but the FIU defense under coordinator Matt House hasn’t shown me any reason to believe they can slow down WKU’s offense enough to win this game.