No. 20 UWF will play Florida Tech at 12 p.m. CDT Saturday on the road in Melbourne. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+ and ESPN Pensacola 1330 AM/99.1 FM.

PENSACOLA — Pete Shinnick has attested all year his West Florida team was within 48 minutes of being a contender in 2018.


Losses against Midwestern State, West Georgia, Florida Tech and Valdosta State were each one-score games when their fourth quarters began, but the Argos (5-1 overall, 4-0 Gulf South Conference) couldn’t finish. Those four teams outscored UWF by a combined 62-10 in the final period.


A 30-28 loss to rival Florida Tech in late October particularly stung. The Argos led 21-3 late in the first half when linebacker Richard Leveille stripped quarterback Sam Vaughn of the football at his own 11 and returned it for a touchdown, setting the tone for what was to come.


The Panthers scored 20 straight to open the second half, capping the run with quarterback Trent Chmelik’s 79-yard touchdown pass to Romell Guerrier with five minutes left.


“They got the better of us last year, they found a way to make it work,” Shinnick said on his weekly “The Coach Shinnick Show” appearance. “We had a nice, comfortable lead there and couldn’t maintain it.”


In 2019, the Argos are singing a different tune.


After an opening night loss to Carson-Newman, they’ve won five straight, including a 30-2 victory against West Georgia this past week. They’re ranked 20th in the country. And perhaps most importantly, they’ve learned how to close, outscoring foes 64-10 in the fourth quarter and overtime.


“We’re very excited to be where we are right now,” Shinnick said.


Now the Argos’ comeback tour is set to take Melbourne by storm. UWF will play Florida Tech at 12 p.m. CDT Saturday on the road in the Coastal Classic. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+ and ESPN Pensacola 1330 AM/99.1 FM.


Shinnick expects a definitive rivalry game.


“I think from the beginning these games have really been classic games,” he said. “Every one of them has come down to the wire, every one of ’em’s been close. I think we’ve played some of our better football, and they’ve played some of their better football.


“You can throw out records, you can throw out everything else. We expect nothing but a great football game going down there and playing at their place.”


Florida Tech (3-4, 1-3) has lost three straight games, including a 55-28 decision against No. 1 Valdosta State this past Saturday, but the Panthers are not to be overlooked, Shinnick said.


“If you would turn on the beginning of their game versus Valdosta, they’re going toe to toe,” he said. “They really are. Explosive offensive plays, some big things taking place across the board in all phases of the game.”


Offensively, the Panthers rank fourth in the Gulf South Conference in scoring, averaging 28 points per game, and fourth overall in total offense thanks to a high-flying aerial attack.


Making use of both Chmelik, who missed two games with an injury, and quarterback Mike Diliello under center, Florida Tech has passed for 1,836 yards, 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. Only West Alabama has passed for more yards (1,861) in the conference.


A redshirt freshman, Diliello also leads the Panthers with 391 rushing yards and a GSC-best 10 rushing touchdowns.


“He throws the ball well enough that you gotta be respectful of that,” Shinnick said. “And then they got (Chmelik) back, and really I thought against Valdosta they used both very, very well. They probably had about as good a game as you could ask for with both guys playing.


“It’s a different challenge, a unique challenge when both guys are in there.”


It’s likely a challenge the Argo defense is ready for. After all, UWF boasts the second-best scoring defense in the country and leads the nation in passing yards and first downs allowed.


Opponents average just 10 points and 242.3 yards per game against the Argos, who have allowed just two offensive touchdowns in their past 14 quarters and forced a program record six turnovers against West Georgia this past Saturday.


“We just got a group of guys that I think are really playing at a high level right now,” Shinnick said.


That group will be bolstered by the return of linebackers Andre Duncombe Jr. and De'Marco Artis from injuries.


Meanwhile, the UWF offense is humming along quite nicely, as well.


Redshirt freshman quarterback Austin Reed has completed 56.8% of his throws for 1,333 yards and leads the conference with 15 touchdown passes.


In the trenches, running backs Jervon Newton, Anthony Johnson and Shomari Mason have each topped 200 rushing yards this season, led by Newton’s 272 yards, and the Argos average a respectable 164.5 rushing yards per game.


That ground attack will be pivotal, considering Florida Tech allows a conference-worst 219.4 rushing yards per game.


“We’ve gotta be able to run the ball,” Shinnick said. “I think you saw that last week … I like what our O-line, tight ends and running backs are doing and, really, how our wide receivers are blocking, as well.”