Asst. Sports Director
Remember after the first football game of the season when we were all excited about how great FIU could be following their upset of the University of Central Florida in Orlando? When FIU was seemingly a lock for a bowl game and maybe even a contender to win Conference USA?
Well, those days are over. After another disappointing performance this past weekend, FIU is all but eliminated from C-USA contention and a possible bid for a bowl game is drifting further and further away.
FIU (3-4, 1-2) fell to the Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders (3-4, 2-1) on Saturday, Oct. 17 by a score of 42-34. The Panthers had countless opportunities all afternoon long, but their inability to capitalize in key situations is what ultimately led to their defeat.
Even though I actually picked FIU to lose in my column last week, I still feel horrible about this loss as somebody who watches this team each and every week. My disappointment isn’t just that they lost such an important game – it’s how they lost it.
The Panthers couldn’t take advantage of the various opportunities they kept getting and eventually that caught up with them. FIU wasted multiple trips to the red zone and dropped an inordinate amount of passes, while MTSU capitalized on an FIU defense that for the most part did not show up.
The FIU offense moved the ball very well as the game went on, converted more first downs than MTSU, won the turnover battle 2-1, had a slight advantage in time of possession and committed less than half of the amount of penalties that MTSU committed. This should mean that FIU won the game, right? Wrong.
Right off the bat, FIU’s defense and special teams made a couple key plays that should’ve put FIU ahead with a comfortable early lead. Richard Leonard returned the opening kickoff 53 yards and on the first defensive play of the game he intercepted a Brent Stockstill pass (Leonard’s first pick of the season) and brought it to the MTSU 1-yard line.
However, this is where those missed opportunities I was talking about started to arise. The offense stalled after Leonard’s great kick return, turning the ball over on downs at the 29-yard line of MTSU. Then, after Leonard set them up for what appeared to be an easy touchdown with his interception, the Panthers couldn’t get the ball in the end zone and had to settle for an 18-yard field goal from Austin Taylor.
Unfortunately, FIU’s inability to capitalize on scoring chances did not end there. An interception thrown in MTSU territory (which came just two plays after a holding call on Michael Montero negated a 32-yard completion to Thomas Owens inside the 5-yard line) ended what was sure to be a scoring drive in the second quarter. The Panthers once again had to settle for a field goal inside the five-yard line on a later possession, even though an MTSU penalty gave them an extra set of downs. Taylor not only missed a 44-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, but also shanked the extra point after FIU’s first touchdown. Add all of that together with the countless drops by FIU receivers and it’s no wonder MTSU pulled away with the win.
As upset as I was with how this game ended, there were a few positives that I took from it – sophomore quarterback Alex McGough, sophomore running back Alex Gardner, and senior cornerback Richard Leonard. Each of these players is a leader on this team and they were the main reasons why FIU hung around for as long as they did. McGough continues to look more and more comfortable in his second year and Leonard finally stepped up and had a game where he shined defensively and on special teams like he did a season ago.
Gardner specifically has continued to impress me more and more as the season has gone on. He really became a number one back before his shoulder injury ended his 2014 campaign short and he’s come back in a major way despite a crowded backfield and inconsistent offensive line. The more I watch him play, the more I believe he could be the best offensive player FIU has had since T.Y. Hilton.
If FIU wants any chance to receive an invitation to a bowl game, they’ll need to quickly put this loss behind them and focus completely on moving forward. They need three wins at the very least to be considered for a bowl and their next three games against Old Dominion University, Florida Atlantic University and University of North Carolina at Charlotte provide what should be the three best chances remaining for FIU to pick up wins.
The first of those three games will take place this Saturday, Oct. 24, as the ODU Monarchs come to Miami for a C-USA East matchup. This will be FIU’s homecoming game, so hopefully there’s a big crowd to cheer the Panthers on to what should be their fourth win of the season.