Florida International has never finished higher than fourth in Conference USA’s East division since joining the league five seasons ago.
With their 24-21 victory over Middle Tennessee State, the Panthers are squarely in the driver’s seat to break that streak this season.
Coming into the game MTSU had given up an average of 185 yards per game on the ground, including a combined 741 yards in the last three contests. It would be fair to assume that the talented FIU rushing attack would see a heavy workload early.
However, the story coming out of tonight’s game has to be the continued emergence of quarterback James Morgan.
The Bowling Green transfer looks like a completely different player than the one who started under center opening night versus Indiana.
Morgan started the game on fire going 17-21 for 187 yards in the first-half with a touchdown pass to Shemar Thornton.
He would finish the night 27-36 for 311 with two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Morgan’s favorite target in C.J. Worton showed flashes of his play-making ability taking multiple tunnel-screen passes for big gains. The Florida transfer had 5 catches for 111 yards.
For MTSU, the injury bug bit them early at the position they could least afford.
Star quarterback Brent Stockstill left early in the second quarter with an ankle injury and JUCO transfer Asher O’Hara was forced into duty.
He would made his collegiate debut in the midst of a 22-play drive which ended with a Tavares Thomas seven-yard scamper into the end zone to put the Blue Raiders ahead 7-3.
The much-maligned Panther defense rose to the challenge of stopping Stockstill. They held him to a pedestrian 6-7 and 28 yards passing.
However, for the second time this season, a quarterback who FIU couldn’t have been expecting to see gave them issues.
O’Hara would guide Middle to a 14-13 halftime lead and on their second drive of the third quarter they would extend that lead to 21-13 on a Thomas two-yard score.
Momentum swung the Panthers way on a controversial call in late in the quarter.
Safety Jovante Moffatt was ejected for targeting for a high hit on a scrambling Morgan. Moffatt who was Conference USA’s defensive player of the week for his efforts last week vehemently protested the call and had to be kept away from Worton as the call was under review.
The offense would respond with a 45-yard boot from kicker Jose Borregales, who went 3-4 on the evening which included a career-long 53-yard field goal in the second quarter.
MTSU would lose another key player early in the fourth quarter.
Dynamic utility player Brad Anderson suffered a leg injury and had to be carted off the field with his leg in an air-cast.
Linebackers Edwin Freeman and Sage Lewis spearheaded the FIU defense all evening. They finished with 10 and nine tackles respectively and helped force a key MTSU punt in the fourth, which gave the FIU signal-caller a chance to put his team ahead.
Morgan would respond going 3-6 for 64 yards, including a crucial third-down conversion to Bryce Singleton and delivered a strike to Worton in the end zone to put the Panthers ahead by one.
FIU head coach Butch Davis would choose to go for two and former starting quarterback Maurice Alexander connected with Tony Gaiter IV to put FIU ahead by a field goal.
O’Hara took the field looking to drive MTSU for a score one final time. He would use his legs similar to the way Stockstill has in his decorated C-USA career, picking up a first-down early in the drive and scrambling to find Gatlin Casey on another third-down.
The crowd that was at Riccardo Silva Stadium came alive on a fourth-down but O’Hara would find Ty Lee for another conversion.
As MTSU looked poised to get at least a game-tying or go-ahead score, when newly minted captain Olin Cushion III jumped in front of an O’Hara pass in the end zone and ended the comeback hopes of the Blue Raiders.
O’Hara would finish his gutsy performance 9-20 for 114 yards through the air and added 85 yards on 21 carries on the ground.
FIU improves to 4-2 on the season and are in control of their own destiny as they seek a C-USA East crown. The Panthers will host Rice next week.