OPPONENT PREVIEW: Tops travel to Miami for third conference game | WKU Sports

Editor’s note: This is part eight of a 13-part series previewing each of Western Kentucky’s opponents for the 2021 football season. Part eight features a look at FIU. Part nine will preview Charlotte.

While it got off to a rocky start in 2020 against quality competition, Western Kentucky closed out its regular season strong with three consecutive wins.

Its opponent in the middle of that winning streak – Florida International – didn’t see quite the same success at the tail end of the fall, or any part of the fall, for that matter.

The Panthers struggled to even get on the field because of issues relating to COVID-19, and in the five games they did, they lost. FIU is hoping to turn things around this season, which includes an Oct. 23 game against WKU in Miami.

“I think, as like all the coaches across the country, I think everybody is super excited about the 2021 football season with all the things every program in the country went through last year,” FIU head coach Butch Davis said in July at the Conference USA virtual media days. “It was great getting back for us, getting to have an offseason conditioning program, to have a great spring practice. The enthusiasm of our program was really, really good.”

FIU saw the field for games in consecutive weeks only once last season – when it hosted Florida Atlantic and made the trip to Bowling Green the following week. The Nov. 21 game at Houchens-Smith Stadium ended up being the Panthers’ final game of the season, after having a Nov. 28 game against Louisiana Tech, a Dec. 5 game at Charlotte and a Dec. 11 game against Marshall canceled.

“I don’t know if many programs had much of a worse thing than we did,” Davis said. “We had 47 players that had over 30-55 days of isolation. We lost the entire offensive coaching staff, we lost the entire defensive coaching staff for three weeks, each one of them later on.”

Despite that, and its winless season, FIU did play in some close games. It opened the season with a 36-34 loss to a Liberty team that finished the season ranked No. 17 in the AP poll. In FIU’s next game, it lost by 3 to Middle Tennessee, and in its third game lost to Jacksonville State by 9.

Against WKU, the Panthers led 13-10 in the third quarter before back-to-back defensive scores from the Hilltoppers that highlighted a stretch of 35 unanswered points in the 38-21 WKU victory.

While the outlook isn’t too promising again this season – FIU was picked sixth in the C-USA Predicted Order of Finish, above only Old Dominion – the Panthers have some pieces back this fall, highlighted by D’vonte Price.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound running back opted to return for an additional year after a breakout fall. He set program records of yards per rush in a season at 6.84, and in yards per game in a season with 116.2. His yards per game ranked second in C-USA behind only UTSA’s Sincere McCormick.

“D’vonte Price, the starting running back who last year, he had – with only the five games that we played last year – he had a great season,” Davis said. “He was on track to probably have 1,500 yards rushing if we had been able to play 10, 11, 12 games or go to a bowl game and stuff.

“You have to love guys like this in any football program. He had an opportunity to go to the National Football League. I talked to a lot of people in the league and said, ‘What’s his draft possibilities?’ And they said, ‘Well, you know he probably would have gotten drafted had he chosen to go out last year,’ but he didn’t want to leave on the negative thing we had last season, so you have to love D’vonte coming back.”

FIU hired six new coaches and an additional two in different capacities. That group includes new offensive coordinator Andrew Breiner after the Panthers finished last in the league in total offense and pass offense last year. FIU”s 123.4 yards passing per game ranked 121st of 127 FBS teams to play last season.

The Panthers have a four-way quarterback competition going with returners Max Bortenschlager and Kaylan Wiggins, who both saw action with the team last year, as well as second-year freshman Haden Carlson and true freshman Grayson James.

FIU’s run defense was rocky last season, allowing an average of 235.6 yards rushing per game. The mark ranked 12th out of the 13 C-USA teams to play last season. The Panthers are hoping the hiring of defensive coordinator Everett Withers can shore up the defense.

WKU leads the all-time series 8-6, and the two teams are 4-4 when meeting in Miami.

Kickoff for the Oct. 23 game is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT.{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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