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Preview: Chippewas round out non-conference slate with showdown against FIU

Lew Nichols III runs with the ball during the first home game, Sept. 11, at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

One more non-conference tune up. 

That's all Jim McElwain and Central Michigan (1-2) football have before entering the grueling Mid-American Conference portion of the schedule. The Chippewas are coming off a 49-21 loss to Louisiana State and are looking to even their record before hitting the road for two straight. 

Standing in the way of this goal is Florida International (1-2) and head coach Butch Davis. As the Chippewas prepare for this final non-conference game, McElwain is anticipating how his team will respond to the tough loss suffered in its last game. 

"It'll be interesting to see how we bounce back," McElwain said. "I told our team, kinda shoot it straight, I'm real nervous. Probably not nervous as much as I'm, how we're gonna come out. How we're gonna pick ourselves up. I think this is gonna tell a lot about the leadership on our football team." 

Saturday's matchup will be the first all-time between the Chippewas and Panthers. 

Meet the opponent

Davis' Panthers are coming off a 54-21 loss to Texas Tech, their second loss in a row. The offense is led by senior running back D'Vonte Price, who has run for 327 yards and four touchdowns in the first three games. 

Senior Max Bortenschlager is the starting quarterback. The Fishers, Indiana native is in his second year with the program after spending the first four of his college career at Maryland. Bortenschlager is 43-for-78 passing for 710 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions in 2021.

At wide receiver, the Panthers are paced by Tyrese Chambers. In 2019, Chambers was a Football Championship Subdivision All-American and a finalist for the Jerry Rice Award, an honor given annually to the best FCS freshman. He has nine catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns on the year. 

Defensively, Davon Strickland anchors the ship. Strickland, a 2020 honorable mention All-Conference USA selection, has 10 tackles and 2.5 for loss this season. The secondary is held down by Rishard and Richard Dames, both experienced options. 

As a team, the Panthers average 28.7 points per game. Price and company do a hefty amount of work in the run game, averaging over 170 yards a game on the ground. The passing game averages 242 yards and the team converts 40 percent of its third downs. 

FIU struggles against the run defensively, allowing 148 yards per contest. The secondary has its struggles as well, allowing 255.7 yards through the air. Opponents convert 41 percent of third downs against the Panthers. 

Big question: Will the Chippewas take advantage of the Panthers' porous run game?

With backup running back Darius Bracy out 3-6 weeks with an MCL injury and Kobe Lewis already done for a significant amount of time, the Chippewas are growing thin in the backfield. Lew Nichols III has proven he's more than capable of shouldering the load, but behind him are three freshmen. 

The most promising of the three has been De'Javion Stepney, who has run for 103 yards on 12 carries in two games. His fellow freshmen, Myles Bailey and Marion Lukes, have shown growth and flashes of potential as well.  

McElwain has praised the depth this team has at running back. For the first time, however, they'll be really tested. If the Chippewas can establish the run game, it makes things much easier for the passing attack. 

Key to victory: Creating turnovers 

Through three games, CMU has forced just one turnover. The secondary play has been up-and-down, including a rough early showing against LSU. A better performance is key for the Chippewas to earn a win. 

The Chippewas need a solid showing from cornerbacks Dishon McNary, Donte Kent and Daedae Hill. It's likely the Panthers will try to establish the run, which could be difficult against the Chippewas' stout defensive front seven. 

If CMU's front seven holds true, the responsibility will turn to the secondary, as the Panthers will likely hit the passing game. How this matchup turns out will determine the Chippewas' chances for victory. 

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Florida International (1-2) at Central Michigan (1-2)

All-time series: First meeting

Time: Noon ET

Stadium: Kelly/Shorts Stadium

Location: Mount Pleasant, MI

Odds: CMU -11.5

Over/Under: 55.5

TV: ESPN+ (Jim Barbar, Randy Buffington)

Radio: 98.5 WUPS (Adam Jaksa, Brock Gutierrez, Chris Jared)