Bowl eligible but not bowl certain, FIU is riding a two-game losing streak, no longer has a chance to win Conference USA and will host the league’s top-ranked passing offense Friday night when the Panthers take on Western Kentucky.
To make matters even more precarious for FIU (6-4, 4-3), the Panthers will be playing without their two top receivers, Thomas Owens and Julian Williams, who are both injured and out for the rest of the regular season.
Owens, a senior, leads the league in receiving yards per game (98.6). He also leads FIU in catches (59), yards (887) and touchdowns (six).
“It was a tough loss — we were pretty upset about that,” FIU sophomore receiver Austin Maloney said of Owens’ injury. “We knew we lost someone special. He was killing it this year.”
Williams, a redshirt junior, has 19 catches and is second on the team in receiving yards (266).
With Owens and Williams out, FIU will rely on sophomores Tony Gaiter IV (25 catches, 248 yards); Maloney (14 catches, 221 yards); and Darrius Scott (13 catches, 144 yards).
Freshmen Bryce Singleton (eight catches) and Shermar Thornton (five catches) have also moved up in the rotation. But even combining the catches of those five receivers, they don’t match the 78 grabs turned in by Owens and Williams.
Not that Gaiter is worried.
“It was a significant loss for the receivers,” Gaiter said of Owens in particular. “But one man down, next man up — that’s the mentality in the receivers room. We can’t dwell on the loss.”
FIU receivers coach Aubrey Hill knows how difficult it is to play the position at this level. He won three SEC titles during his days as a Florida Gators receiver.
Hill also knows that Owens drew double-teams, making things easier for the rest of the group. Now, if any FIU receiver were to get hot, opponents could react with a double-team.
“It’s a huge hole to fill,” Hill said of Owens. “He was really in a groove, and our heart goes out to him and [Williams] for being out.
“Our guys understand there’s a drop-off, but you can see they’re out here after practice, doing extra.”
Hill said Gaiter, who is from Westminster Christian, Maloney (Columbus) and Scott (Booker T. Washington) are prime candidates to emerge.
“[Gaiter] has been consistent,” Hill said. “We like his leadership, and his work ethic is like that of an older guy. [Maloney] is a deep threat, and Scott has made some plays in the slot.”
FIU is sixth in the league in passing yards, averaging 232. But Western Kentucky (6-5, 4-3) has true firepower, averaging a league-best 332 passing yards.
Much of Western Kentucky’s success is due to senior quarterback Mike White, a former Broward County star (University School) who has a 22-7 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions. He also leads the league in passing yards (3,471).
FIU traveled to Western Kentucky last November and got blown out 49-21 as White completed 16 of 23 passes for 274 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
That game was a 49-7 rout after three quarters.
This season, in their first year under coach Butch Davis, the Panthers are much improved.
But Davis is still wary of WKU, saying the Hilltoppers will be tough to run against due to their size. Davis also heaped praise on White and the WKU offense.
“They may be the most prolific passing attack we’ve played against and that may include [unbeaten] UCF,” Davis said. “They are going to air it out and put a lot of pressure on your nickel and dime coverages.
“[WKU] will go four wide and has tight ends who can run almost as well as wide receivers. And White runs a pro-style attack. He has an NFL body [6-4, 225 pounds] and can make every throw.”
Friday: Western Kentucky at FIU
Kickoff: 7 p.m.; Riccardo Silva Stadium.
TV/radio: BEIN; no radio.
Favorite: Western Kentucky by 2 1/2.
Records: FIU 6-4 (4-3 C-USA); Western Kentucky 6-5 (4-3 C-USA).
Series: Western Kentucky leads 6-4.
FIU injuries: Out — WR Thomas Owens (knee); RB Anthony Jones (knee).
Western Kentucky injuries: Out — LB Demetrius Cain (lower body); RB Quinton Baker (upper body); DL Carson Jordan (undisclosed); DL Evan Sayner (leg); DL Jalen Madden (knee); DB De’Andre Simmons (ACL)