Panthers fall in season opener at “The Cage”

FIU fell to Bethune-Cookman University 14-12 in Saturday night’s opener at Ocean Bank Field. The Panthers trailed for most of the slow-paced game but still had a shot to steal it at the end of regulation.

With five seconds left to play, the Panthers lined up a potential game-winning field goal. The Wildcats called a timeout right before the snap as Austin Taylor put the kick through the uprights. On their second attempt, holder Chris Ayers was unable to handle the snap from Brendan Taylor. The Panthers recovered the ball as time expired.

Starting quarterback E.J. Hilliard struggled in the limited action he saw. Hilliard was 3-of-6 for 26 yards and was also sacked two times. Hilliard left the game early in the second quarter, making way for true freshman Alex McGough. McGough was expected to see some action in certain packages but he carried the load the remainder of the way. He only relinquished his spot for one snap, following a play in which his helmet was ripped off.

“We said going into the game that we were gonna put him in for the third or fourth series,” said Head Coach Ron Turner. “We put him in the fourth series and we just felt keeping him in was the best thing to do at that time.”

Despite his youth, McGough did not make many mistakes. He was 13-of-27 on the evening with 117 passing yards and a touchdown. McGough’s five yard touchdown pass came with 5:16 left in the game and put the Panthers within two. McGough’s pass attempt to T.J. Lowder on the two-point conversion attempt fell incomplete.

“It was a great experience,” said McGough when asked about his first college game. “I had a great time.”

Special teams really kept the Panthers in the game. Senior kick-returner Richard Leonard broke the FIU single game return yard record with 148 yards. The old record, held by T.Y. Hilton, was set on November 12, 2011 when Hilton had 97 yards.

“I wasn’t really worried about any record,” said Leonard. “I was just worried about the team and putting them in the best position.”

The Panthers were led on the ground by another true freshman– Alex Gardner. Gardner ran for 46 yards on 12 carries. Junior running back Lamarq Caldwell was only able to muster up 15 yards on 10 carries.

McGough’s favorite target was junior tight end Ya’Keem Griner. Griner had 3 catches for a total of 36 yards.

The Panthers defense was one of the strong points Friday evening. They were able to hold the Wildcats to 239 total yards. Junior defensive end Denzell Perine finished the game with 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss.

The only big mistake the defense made came when they allowed a 55-yard touchdown pass from Quentin Williams to Frank Brown. It was Brown’s first catch at the college level and also his only catch of the night.

The Panthers will try and move on from the tough loss as they face off against Wagner College (1-0) next Saturday at 6 p.m. Wagner is coming off a 21-3 victory at Georgetown.

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