Tuesday Night Football: FIU, Arkansas State Can Make Early Bowl Claim


Mid-week football is an underrated blessing, both for the teams involved and the obsessed such as myself. For the universities, a primetime slot on ESPN means mean more for the program and an opportunity to showcase itself to potential recruits. For fans, it means one less night for domestic duties or watching nighttime dramas with the significant other. The Sun Belt athletic office should consider a raise for whomever scheduled Florida International – Arkansas State for the conference’s initial national broadcast, because this is a truly marquee match-up.

It’s only mid-October, but a postseason appearance could hang in the balance for these 4-2 squads. Surprise 6-1 La.-Lafayette already appears to be running away with the Sun Belt title courtesy of wins over FIU and Troy, and that means a New Orleans Bowl berth for the Ragin’ Cajuns. The Sun Belt’s other upper echelon teams are jockeying for the league’s GoDaddy.com and Lil’ Caesars Bowl bids. Tonight’s winner takes a decided upperhand in that race, and two of the nation’s rising, young coaches get a chance to shine on the Worldwide Leader.

If you’ve followed the Detmer Award balloting here on SaturdayBlitz.com — and if no, then why the heck not?! — then you know the name T.Y. Hilton. The combo wideout-special teams weapon powered FIU to a 3-0 start, including a romp over Big East member Louisville in which he accounted for over 200 yards. Hilton’s suffered some wear from being such an integral part of the Golden Panther offense though. In FIU’s last outing, a victory over Akron that snapped a two-game skid, he caught a record-tying 12 passes; not-so-coincidentally, a record held by him.

But in garnering nearly 200 yards, Hilton reaggrevated an ankle injury. The Golden Panthers’ three extra days of rest could mean the difference for the offense. Quarterback Wesley Carroll has found a nice rhythm, completing nearly 64 percent of his pass attempts and only giving up one interception. He finished last season with 14 picks, so the turnaround in ball control is vast, yet due largely to Hilton’s presence.

Should ASU key in on Hilton, or the injury affect his production, expect a more ground-oriented attack from Mario Cristobal’s squad. While Carroll while still have reliable No. 2 target Wayne Times, the duo of Kedrich Rhodes and Darriet Perry could see an increased workload. Rhodes and Perry have combined for over 800 yards and 11 scores to give the Golden Panthers balance, as well as options. Perry is the power piece of the rushing puzzle at a solid 5-foot-9, 215 pounds, while the lighter Rhodes (5-foot-11, 190 pounds) provides elusiveness, and a decent pass-catch option from the backfield.

Cristobal likely wants to avoid a shootout. FIU has lost two of its three highest scoring games this season (31-27 at Duke, 36-31 vs. ULL). Only when it hung 41 on hapless North Texas did FIU win this season with overpowering offense. The Golden Panther defense is among the nation’s best, allowing just 21.2 points per game (No. 32 in FBS), and 106.7 rushing yards per (No. 25 in FBS). The latter means an ASU offense already unreliant on the rush may look even more to quarterback Ryan Aplin, who has racked up nearly 1650 yards through just six games, using a triumvirate of dangerous receivers.

Aplin scored 21 passing touchdowns a season ago, and is actually well shy of that pace this season. He has six through six games, and has been picked off eight times. He was intercepted 11 times all of 2010. Combine that with the Red Wolves’ lack of a rushing game — only one ball carrier has more than 200 yards on the season — and it’s a wonder ASU is averaging 28.7 points per game. ASU does have a pick-six and a punt return for touchdown though, and the defense has been solid.

At fewer than 21 points per game, ASU is among the upper half of defenses in the FBS. That’s a departure from last season, when ASU gave up nearly five touchdowns per game. Then again, a lot has changed from last season.

The 2010 Red Wolves finished just 4-8, but like last season’s 7-6 FIU team, was faced with numerous close decisions. ASU lost five games by a combined 20 points in ’10, including a 31-24 regular season finale that earned FIU a bid in the Lil’ Caesars Pizza Bowl. The lessons of those tough losses seem to pay off, as Hugh Freeze’s bunch has won its last two by a combined nine points. Both were on the road, and both in conference (at Western Kentucky and at UL-Monroe).

ASU returns home to Jonesboro hot, and with an opportunity to make a definitive statement. The Red Wolves play just two more road games, one against winless FAU. Given the records and performance of its upcoming opponents, a win tonight could put ASU on a realistic pace to nine wins.