Changing the culture is a phrase that is used throughout sports whenever a new coach is hired.
For FIU head coach Butch Davis, he’s had to fight the Panthers’ reputation as doormats and lackluster fan enthusiasm.
Following last week’s thrilling 24-21 victory of Middle Tennessee State, the question was how would the young Panthers handle success. Early on, it looked like they might still be learning how to win.
“This whole season the team has had to learn how to win games, we’ve played a lot of freshmen and players who hardly played last year. But I’m proud of the guys and you hope as a coach that they can learn that they can’t wait till the half or the next game to make corrections. They did it on the fly and I’m happy with that,” said Davis.
Walk-on Evan Marshman made his first start for Rice at quarterback and led the Owls on a 12-play, 75-yard drive that ended with his first career rushing touchdown on a bootleg.
FIU’s signal-caller James Morgan has played like one of Conference USA’s elite quarterbacks since the opening week loss to Indiana.
His red-hot play continued, as he went 20-29 for 229 yards and two touchdown passes with no interceptions.
Those numbers included a near completion to Bryce Singleton that he couldn’t haul in as he hit the ground and a 18-yard third-down conversion to C.J. Worton that was called back on a penalty.
Morgan would connect on a pinpoint pass to Austin Maloney in the second quarter to put FIU ahead 16-7.
“There’s not a throw on the field that this kid can’t make,” said Davis.
Mike Bloomgren’s Owls’ came into South Florida down their starting quarterback, running back and on a six-game losing streak.
However, he has to be encouraged by how his ball-club held tough for a half.
Marshman used his legs to gash the Panthers similarly to the way MTSU’s Asher O’Hara did last week. He would finish the game with 11 carries for 68 yards and two scores.
26 of those yards came on a drive that closed the first-half with a Haden Tobola 47-yard field goal to make it a 16-10 game.
One of the players Davis repeatedly points out as being pivotal in helping change FIU’s culture is Maurice Alexander.
The former starting quarterback had a decorated high school career at the position. When Morgan arrived on campus in the summer, Alexander made the decision to switch to receiver to help the Panthers.
The result has been Alexander becoming one of the nation’s most dynamic players.
He fielded a first-quarter punt inside of his five yard line and sliced his way through the Owl punt coverage to the 21-yard line. He followed with a 51-yard touchdown run on a jet sweep in the second quarter.
“He’s such an electric player who reminds me a little of Santana Moss at Miami when I had him,” said Davis.
The FIU defense did force two punts in the first-half and Edwin Freeman made a leaping interception on an attempted Marshman screen to Walter.
Morgan would again show why he should be considered a leading candidate for Conference USA’s newcomer of the year.
“It feels good to have success and I’ve really enjoyed this experience. I just try to take it week by week and keep growing,” said Morgan.
He spearheaded a seven-play, 87-yard drive that ended in a Shemar Thornton 29-yard touchdown pass.
“It makes me feel great that the coaching staff has that type of confidence in me and they put us in great situations to succeed as an offense,” said Morgan.
However, Rice’s gutsy walk-on would respond on the ensuing drive.
Marshman found the end zone with his legs again on a 22-yard scamper to cut the Panther lead to nine after three quarters of play.
Davis may have sensed that his team needed a spark in the final period of play. As FIU was looking at stalled drive near midfield, he called a fake punt which Stone Wilson carried 20 yards for a first down.
The offense would respond with a conversion on third and 12 and would finish the drive with a Morgan four-yard touchdown run to make the game 33-17.
A late Rishard Dames interception would ice the game as FIU would win by a final of 36-17.
Rice faces in-state foe North Texas next week, while FIU will leave South Florida for the first time in six weeks as they face Western Kentucky.