The 49ers travel to Miami, Fla. to take on the FIU Panthers in a pivotal Conference USA East matchup this Saturday, Oct. 12. FIU enters the matchup with a 2-3 overall record, and both teams are currently winless in C-USA.
“We have a better mentality going into this game,” said senior defensive end Alex Highsmith. “We know that we are going to face a good team and so we know we have to have a killer mindset and communicate and just do our job.”
Senior running back Anthony Jones spearheads the Panthers’ run-heavy offense that averages 41 rush attempts per game -- the highest average in the C-USA -- compared to 29 pass attempts per game. Jones, a punishing in-between-the-tackles back, leads the Panthers in rushing with 279 yards and three touchdowns. However, the Panthers also call upon senior running back Napoleon Maxwell to spell Jones and create a change of pace. In contrast to Jones, Maxwell uses his 11-second 100-meter dash speed to blow past defenders. The Panthers add a third element to their rushing attack with effective read-option plays, primarily with starting quarterback James Morgan and Jones. In fact, Morgan scored a 15-yard touchdown run against Louisiana Tech off of a read-option rush.
Jones, Maxwell and Morgan run behind a stout, experienced offensive line anchored by 2018 C-USA Honorable Mention All-Conference team members Dallas Connell, D’Ante Demery and Shane McGough.
In C-USA, the 49er defense allows the third most rushing yards per game to opposing offenses. Charlotte’s front seven is sure to be tested against an experienced, dependable FIU offensive line and rushing attack. Charlotte Head Coach Will Healy believes the 49er defense will step up this week against FIU despite a poor outing against FAU.
“This defense is going to be great,” said Healy.
The Panthers initiate their passing game by utilizing their quality rushing attack to create throwing opportunities through play-action passes. Two of the Panthers' five passing touchdowns this season have come off of play action passes. Although Morgan is not called upon often to throw the ball, he is capable of making big plays with his arm. Three of Morgan’s five touchdown passes came from 25 or more yards out.
“They make explosive plays in the pass game. They’ve got great athletes and it shows,” said Healy.
Applying pressure to Morgan in the passing game will be an important component for the 49ers to keep the FIU offense one dimensional and off the field. Currently, the 49er pass rush ranks second in sacks among C-USA members. The Charlotte pass rush, led by Highsmith, will need to force errant throws and create sack opportunities against the Panthers.
“We have to be able to put pressure on the quarterback,” said Healy.
Morgan’s favorite targets include Austin Maloney, Tony Gaiter IV and Shermar Thorton.
Maloney leads the Panthers in receiving with 254 receiving yards and one touchdown on 12 receptions. Thorton may have the largest catch radius of any FIU wide receiver. Thorton showcased his ability to make spectacular, reaching grabs against Tulane when he made a leaping catch with two defenders draped on him. Lastly, Gaiter IV is the Panthers fastest deep-threat down field. He exhibited his ability to fly past defenders last week by torching the UMass secondary for a 30-yard touchdown pass.
“I've been working a lot to get faster, get in better shape and I wanted to make my last year here my best,” said Gaiter IV.
The Panthers’ receiving trio should keep the 49er secondary busy.
The FIU defense has shown susceptibility to teams that run the ball well. In the Panthers’ season opener against Tulane, the Green Wave rushed for a combined 350 yards. Expect the 49ers to capitalize on the Panthers’ porous run defense by giving running backs Benny LeMay, C-USA’s second-leading rusher, and Ishod Finger a heavy workload. Despite struggling to stop the run, the Panthers’ secondary has played stingy defense against opposing quarterbacks and receivers. FIU currently leads the C-USA in total team interceptions with 6 for 99 yards. Junior defensive back Rishard Dames and senior linebacker Sage Lewis lead the Panthers with two interceptions each.
“Sage Lewis, he’s a great player,” said Charlotte offensive lineman Cameron Clark. “He’s very fast, especially for his size. He’s very good sideline to sideline, so you definitely have to know where he is.”
Rounding out the FIU secondary is Richard Dames, Rishard’s brother, who has four passes defended on the season, Stantley Thomas-Oliver III and Isaiah Brown. The FIU secondary, coupled with the defensive prowess of star linebacker Lewis, will test Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds and the 49er receiving corps.
Led by return-man Maurice Alexander and punter Tommy Heatherly, the Panthers boast one of the most talented special teams units in the C-USA. Alexander exhibited his dynamic returning ability last week against UMass by scoring a 90-yard punt return.
“He’s (Alexander) super smart; he knows when to fake a fair catch and let the ball go into the end zone. Once he starts running, he’s tough to tackle,” said FIU Head Coach Butch Davis.
Additionally, Heatherly leads the C-USA in average punt length with a 45.2 yards per punt average. However, 2018 Honorable Mention All-Conference Kicker Jose Borregales has struggled this season. Entering the matchup, Borregales has kicked 16 of 17 on extra point attempts and five of nine on field goal attempts.
Kickoff for the 49ers’ game against FIU is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 12.