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Four things to look out for as the FIU Panthers take on Western Kentucky on Saturday

FIU football coach Butch Davis discusses the fall season

FIU football coach Butch Davis discussed the team's attitude approaching the fall season and how having two seasons to reference has helped team growth during Panther Media Day on August 7, 2019
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FIU football coach Butch Davis discussed the team's attitude approaching the fall season and how having two seasons to reference has helped team growth during Panther Media Day on August 7, 2019

Eleven dropped passes — that’s what the film showed for the FIU Panthers in their season-opening 42-14 loss to Tulane last week.

“We self-destructed — blew ourselves up in every aspect,” said FIU coach Butch Davis, who counted those 11 drops during what was surely a miserable film review. “We underachieved.”

FIU will get a chance at redemption on Saturday night in its home opener against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (0-1).

Western Kentucky had even less fun than FIU during its season opener. While FIU lost on the road to a 2018 bowl team (Tulane), Western Kentucky lost at home to an FCS team (Central Arkansas). Western Kentucky blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, falling 35-28.

FIU has beaten the Hilltoppers in each of the past two years, including a 38-17 win at Western Kentucky last season. But the Panthers, who set a program record with nine wins last year, would run the risk of starting this season 0-2 if they take the Hilltoppers lightly.

“They’re explosive,” Davis said of Western Kentucky’s offense.

That might not be totally true just yet, but certainly the potential is there.

New Hilltoppers coach Tyson Helton was the offensive coordinator at Western Kentucky in 2014 and 2015, averaging 44 points per game over those two years. Western Kentucky won Conference USA titles in 2015 and 2016, but then the coaching staff disbanded.

Helton left to Southern Cal, where he spent two years as passing game coordinator, and then one year as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator. Meanwhile, Jeff Brohm, who had been the head coach when Western Kentucky won those two C-USA titles, left to lead the program at Purdue.

Mike Sanford replaced Brohm but was fired in November of 2018 after finishing 9-16 in two years. That cleared the way for the return of Helton, who is now a rookie head coach at age 42.

With that as a backdrop, here are four things to watch for in Saturday’s contest, which will be the opening league game in Conference USA this season:

1: FIU’s mind-set: Davis said he didn’t do a bunch of “screaming and yelling” after the Tulane game. He said his players may have experienced some “anxiety” over the whereabout of Hurricane Dorian this past weekend, but he added that Panthers practices this week have been “focused.”

2: Nerves should be gone now: FIU outside linebacker Daniel Jackson said he was “nervous of course” last week when he made his first collegiate start in the loss to Tulane.

“It was exciting,” he said. “My teammates trusted me, and I was working hard to not let those boys done. … We can only go up from here.”

3: The challenge for FIU’s defense: Davis praised just three defensive players when asked who played well against Tulane, and all three are linebackers: Sage Lewis, Jamal Gates and Jackson.

More contributions from a variety of players will be needed on Saturday against a team led by Helton, who loves to take chances as an offensive coach.

All 11 players atop WKU’s offensive depth chart started at least five games last year, including quarterback Steven Duncan and running back Gaej Walker.

Duncan, a 6-4, 230-pound junior, has started six games at WKU, firing 10 touchdown passes but suffering nine interceptions. He completed 26-of-39 passes for a career-high 304 yards, one TD and two picks against Central Arkansas.

Walker, a 6-0, 195-pound redshirt junior from Tampa, is a converted defensive back. Against Central Arkansas, he scored on a 68-yard run on the first touch of his career as an offensive player. He finished with 152 yards — which leads Conference USA after the first week. He scored two touchdowns and averaged 8.0 yards per carry.

“He had played some running back in high school,” Helton said. “We handed him the ball two or three times in spring, and I could tell he could cut well and had explosion and big-play ability. We felt he could have more of a role at running back (than on defense), and he took advantage of the opportunity.”

4: The challenge for FIU’s offense: Davis said the line is the strength of WKU’s defense. Helton retained Clayton White as defensive coordinator, and White is in his third year running WKU’s 4-2-5 system.

WKU returns three starters on their defensive line and three in their secondary. Defensive end DeAngelo Malone, a 6-4, 230-pound junior defense end, is the star of the defense, and he had 3.5 tackles for losses last week, which leads C-USA — and 1.5 sacks.

Helton said he felt his defense got a lot of tackles for losses but allowed too many big plays.

Meanwhile, FIU quarterback James Morgan completed 19 of 34 for 208 yards, one touchdown and one interception last week. But had it not been for all those drops Davis spoke of, his numbers would’ve been much better.

Wide receiver Shemar Thornton did make a one-handed TD grab for Morgan, finishing with four receptions for 40 yards.

As for the offensive line, Davis said left guard Shane McGough graded out the best on the unit. Davis was also pleased that redshirt freshman Lindell Hudson played 17 snaps, giving FIU some depth at offensive tackle.

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