Florida International U

With a victory Saturday, the FIU Panthers would take control of division. Here is why

FIU Panthers quarterback James Morgan (12) signals in the first quarter as FIU Panthers host Arkansas Pine-Bluff at Ricardo Silva Stadium in Miami on Saturday, September 29, 2018.
FIU Panthers quarterback James Morgan (12) signals in the first quarter as FIU Panthers host Arkansas Pine-Bluff at Ricardo Silva Stadium in Miami on Saturday, September 29, 2018. adiaz@miamiherald.com

If FIU were to win its home game Saturday night, the Panthers would be the only team undefeated in league play in Conference USA’s East Division.

It’s early — FIU is 3-2 overall and 1-0 in C-USA — but there’s no doubting that Saturday’s game is a big opportunity for the Panthers.

However, FIU’s opponent, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (3-2, 2-0), defeated defending league champion Florida Atlantic two weeks ago. The Raiders have also vanquished FIU three straight years: 37-17 in 2017, 42-35 in 2016 and 42-34 in 2015.

FIU, with quarterback James Morgan, former Florida Gators receiver C.J. Worton and several effective running backs, has a more balanced offense than the Raiders, who are primarily dangerous through the air.

“This may be one of the best quarterbacks we play against all season,” FIU coach Butch Davis said of Brent Stockstill, a lefty passer. “A majority of the time, they are in four-receiver [sets, with no tight end]. It will be a big challenge for us.”

To say that Stockstill — whose father (Rick) is the Raiders’ head coach — is a veteran college quarterback is an understatement. Last week, he became the 24th QB and the first in Raiders history to surpass 10,000 passing yards. He is also 24 — three years older than New York Jets starting quarterback Sam Darnold.

Stockstill graduated high school in 2012, took a gray-shirt in 2013 and a red-shirt in 2014 before becoming a starter in 2015, which is when the Raiders started their win streak over FIU.

He was hurt for much of 2017. But in 2016, he completed 22-of-35 passes for 332 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions at FIU.

“There are quarterbacks that you watch and say, ‘That guy has a little bit of magic’,” Davis said of Stockstill, comparing him to NFL stars Russell Wilson and Drew Brees. “[Stockstill] gets rid of the ball extraordinarily fast.”

Stockstill, listed a 6-0 and 220 pounds, fits the Wilson-Brees mold in that he isn’t very tall. And Stockstill can move — Lindy’s magazine called him the best scrambler in Conference USA, as well as “coolest in the clutch.”

That clutch play has been evident the past two weeks. The Raiders trailed FAU 21-3 before winning on a touchdown and a subsequent two-point conversion pass from Stockstill, prevailing 25-24 in the final 38 seconds.

Last week, the Raiders trailed host Marshall 17-10 at halftime before scoring 24 consecutive points for a 34-24 victory.

“We have a very mature team,” Stockstill said during Monday’s conference call. “We’ve been down at the half, and there hasn’t been any [dissension] between teammates. We just let our coaches tell us what adjustments to make.”

Stockstill, who is completing 67 percent of his passes, is averaging 259.8 air yards per game and has 10 TD throws with just three interceptions.

FIU’s defense is powered by middle linebacker Sage Lewis, who leads C-USA with 12.2 tackles per game.

Defensive end Fermin Silva, FIU’s best pass-rusher, is lost for the year because of injury, which could hurt the Panthers’ efforts to harass Stockstill.

But Davis seems confident his secondary can hold up against some prime Raiders weapons, including Ty Lee, a 5-9, 175-pound junior who was a first-team All-C-USA wide receiver last season when he had 79 catches for 955 yards.

As for the FIU secondary that will try to slow down the Raiders passing game, Davis is happy with cornerbacks Ike Brown, Emmanuel Lubin and Stantley Thomas, who has made a successful transition from wide receiver.

At safety, where FIU graduated starters Bryce Canady and Niko Gonzalez, the Panthers are going with Dorian Hall, Olin Cushion III and Rishard Dames.

“Dorian is a freshman — he’s getting more comfortable,” Davis said. “Olin is a good tackler in space. And Rishard has really good football instincts.”

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