WKU vs FIU: Potential for offensive shootout in Miami

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU (2-4, 1-1 C-USA) is on the road for the second week in a row, traveling to Miami, Florida to face the Florida International Golden Panthers (1-5, 0-2 C-USA) at 6 p.m. CT on Saturday.

The Hilltoppers are looking to inch closer to a .500 record and earn their second Conference USA road win of the season. The Panthers’ weak pass defense should allow WKU quarterback Bailey Zappe to feast, but WKU will need to cover an FIU offense that prefers the air.

Stopping the FIU passing game 

Last week, WKU enjoyed its best start of the 2021 season. The Hilltoppers entered halftime with a 30-6 lead after out-gaining Old Dominion by 208 total yards of offense. 

The fast start allowed the Hilltopper defense to up the aggression and attack the quarterback. WKU matched its season sack total with five sacks against the Monarchs. Against FIU, the Hilltoppers are facing an offensive line that has allowed 15 sacks on the season. 

“Like I said a few weeks ago, we’ve been close,” WKU defensive coordinator Maurice Crum said. “We just haven’t made those plays and I think last week we finally got an opportunity to get the guy on the ground, to make the play, to make the tackle… it gave those guys that boost.”

FIU redshirt senior quarterback Max Bortenschlager has thrown for 1,834 yards this season, third-best in C-USA, but has only completed 54% of his passes, third-lowest in the conference.

Panthers sophomore wide out Tyrese Chambers is one of the best deep threats in the nation, leading the country with a 33.6 yards-per-reception average. WKU’s defense has allowed the third-most yards of offense in C-USA this year. 

“I think they’re going to try to throw the football,” Crum said. “That’s what they do best, [they’ve] got a really talented runner to kind of use his play-action fakes and some max protection stuff to protect him [and] to let him throw the ball down the field.” 

“The receivers do a really good job of being aggressive and fighting for the football,” Crum continued. “A lot of times, receivers will kind of fade or let you push them away, but their receiving corps does a great job of fighting to the last possible second and coming up with some impressive catches.”

Zappe vs a bottom-10 passing defense 

FIU is giving up 295 passing yards per game, seventh-worst in the nation, and is allowing quarterbacks to complete 67.2% of their passes, a mark that stands as the 11th-worst in the nation. 

Zappe leads the nation in pass yards per game while completing a stellar 69.7% of his passes, the ninth-best completion percentage in the country. Zappe has been throwing to the nation’s yards and receptions leader Jerreth Sterns. 

Sterns is coming off of a monster performance, catching 13 passes for 221 yards and a score against Old Dominion. Sterns has matched his season-high in yards each of the past three weeks, while FIU has allowed five 100-yard receiving games this season. 

FIU hasn’t gotten to the quarterback too often with just 10 sacks in six games. The offensive line has protected Zappe well all season, surrendering just eight sacks. Zappe and his high-powered offense will have plenty of time to get going against a lackluster pass defense.

Prediction: WKU 52, FIU 35.

Football reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3.