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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the FIU Panthers with Underdog Dynasty’s Eric Henry

CMU will host the (formerly Golden) Panthers in Mt. Pleasant on Saturday afternoon, so we ask FIU insider Eric Henry what to expect to see from the navy and gold crew.

NCAA Football: Camellia Bowl-Florida International vs Arkansas State Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The FIU Golden Panthers (1-2) will be saying “bienvenido a Mt. Pleasant” this upcoming weekend, as the Miami-based squad will travel 1,508 miles north to take on the Central Michigan Chippewas (1-2) in both programs’ respective final non-conference matchups of their campaigns.

FIU, coming off a loss to Texas Tech, and suffering a bad loss to 1-2 Texas State two weeks ago, finds themselves in a must-win if they hope to compete in the front-loaded Conference USA. CMU, meanwhile, is looking to even their record on 2-2 before walking down the gauntlet that is the MAC West divisional race. Both teams will be looking to start off their conference races on the right foot when the ball kicks off Saturday at noon Eastern time.

With this in mind, we reached out to our friends at Underdog Dynasty and talked to FIU insider Eric C. Henry about what the Chippewas should expect to see from the Panthers:

Hustle Belt: Looking at the schedule so far this year, its a mixed bag. An expected win vs. the recently-promoted-to-FCS LIU kicked off the season, a bitter loss to Texas State in OT, and a trouncing at the hands of Texas Tech. Is this more or less what you expected of FIU coming into the season, or is it an aberration? What do you see for the Panthers’ future?

Eric C. Henry: I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily an aberration. I felt the Texas State game and the upcoming Central Michigan games were 50/50. Now, the Texas State loss looks considering they lost to FCS Incarnate Word last week. LIU was an expected win and Texas Tech was an expected loss. What I will say is this game is an absolute must-win for the Panthers. I stated before the season that this team can’t start 1-3 and then begin conference play in Boca Raton against Florida Atlantic – a team they haven’t beaten since 2016. If they’re not able to win on Saturday, they’re staring 1-4 dead in the face and would almost certainly doom their bowl hopes.

HB: The Panthers seem to be a fairly balanced offense, at least by the statistics sheet. They average about 413 yards per game, with 171.3 yards on the ground and 242 yards through the air. Who are the pieces that the Chippewas should watch out for, and what does the offense like to do when everything is going to plan?

ECH: It’s all about D’Vonte Price offensively for FIU. He’s a running back that could have turned pro last season after leading C-USA in yards per attempt. He’s capable of 150+ yards at any time and Central Michigan will need to account for him the way that Texas Tech did. Through the air, quarterback Max Bortenschlager will look to bounce back after two subpar performances. While his numbers on the year look solid, he’s missed a couple of timely throws over the past two weeks and his completion percentage is under 50% in those games.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Florida International Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

HB: The defense seems to have a pretty rough time keeping teams behind them, giving up 403 yards per game, 11 touchdowns and 67 first downs in just three games so far. What’s the main reason for this? Is it indicative of the team’s talent on that side of the ball? Who are the players CMU need to mark in their gameplan?

ECH: I wouldn’t actually say that’s the case. The Texas Tech game accounts for the bulk of their yards allowed on the year and the Texas State game saw FIU’s offense completely stall in the first and third quarters, putting the defense on the field too many times. The team has actually done a solid job against the run, considering their struggles over the prior three seasons. Entering this year, teams had run for over 170 yards against the Panthers in 15 of their previous 31 outings. Keep an eye on defensive tackle Davon Strickland, linebacker Daniel Jackson and a solid secondary led by twins Richard and Rishard Dames.

NCAA Football: Camellia Bowl-Florida International vs Arkansas State Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

HB: Which players for Central scare you as an FIU fan, and how do you think FIU will attempt to counter them?

ECH: FIU has to account for the Central running backs, specifically Lew Nichols. The aforementioned struggles against the run are honestly capable of rearing their head at any time. If the Panthers have a bad day against the ground, it will severely hurt their chances on Saturday. I expect FIU DC Everett Withers to continue to support the front four with a pair of attacking linebackers in Jamal Gates and Daniel Jackson, along with Star/Nickel Pierce Withers – if he’s healthy enough to play.

HB: Butch Davis is a well-known name in the coaching circles, taking on a reclamation project in Miami with the FIU football program. How has he impacted the growth of the Panthers, both on and off the field? What is the fan pulse on him?

ECH: What Butch Davis has given FIU is a well-known name who provides a face of the program – inside and outside of South Florida. The growth of the program in the time he’s been at FIU is subjective, he was able to get new practice fields installed and in his first three seasons, led the program to three consecutive bowl games. However, there’s still an element of what’s next and that may be as much of an overall athletics issue as it is on Butch. The fan pulse currently is frustration. Fair or foul, FIU fans were expecting the team to take the next step after 17 wins in his first two years. For a litany of reasons, that hasn’t happened and fans are just looking for a return to winning ways.

NCAA Football: Florida International at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

HB: How do you think Butch Davis will matchup with Jim McElwain in terms of gameplan and strategy decisions in the game? Are there any matchups to exploit there from an FIU perspective?

ECH: I hope this doesn’t come off as a cop-out answer. But FIU needs to be primary concerned with executing their own gameplan and eliminating the penalties and turnovers that got them beat in the past two games, especially the Texas State game. Even if you look at Texas Tech, they had an opportunity to go up 14-0 on the road, but Max Bortenschlager tossed a pick-six that really changed the momentum of the game.

HB: Finally, a prediction. How do you think the action in Mt. Pleasant will look on Saturday when these two teams take the field?

ECH: To be completely honest, this was a game that I felt Central Michigan would win entering the year. However, FIU can’t afford 1-3 if they’re to have any real hopes at a bowl this year. As mentioned before, the game following this one is on the road against C-USA heavyweight and rival FAU. A loss against Central and they’re almost for sure looking at 1-4.

HB: Oh, almost forgot we kind of have a bonus question: It’s supposed to be 61 degrees and dropping with a good chance of rain and wind prior to kickoff. As a former player (and knowing Miami is not Mt. Pleasant), do such cold conditions have an adverse effect on players? And how do you prepare in the lead-up for potential bad conditions?

ECH: That’s a really solid question. Typically, I’d say it does have an adverse effect, because Floridians just aren’t used to playing in “cold” weather. But as someone who’s covered this team since 2018, I believe kickoffs against Marshall in ’19 and the Camellia Bowl the same year were below 60 degrees. A fair amount of players on this team played in both and FIU does have a decent number of transfers from outside the Sunshine State. Not saying the weather won’t play a factor, but if it were 10 or 15 degrees cooler, I’d say it would be more a deal. I’d look at the rain and wind as factors that the team doesn’t typically deal with, but those factors will affect both teams equally, in my opinion.

Many thanks once again to our bosum buddies at Underdog Dynasty, SB Nation’s (non-MAC) Group of Five and FCS college football blog! You can follow them on Twitter at @UnderdogDynasty.

Thanks also go out to Eric C. Henry, the co-managing editor at UDD, for his great FIU and C-USA coverage. He can be followed on Twitter over @EricCHenry_.