Finding a way to win.
It’s something that’s often talked about but few teams know the path.
For Butch Davis and his group of adolescent Panthers they’re piecing together their trail towards the Conference USA championship game.
At the outset of the game, it looked like the team’s biggest issue would rare its ugly head at the worst time.
“They’ve got one of the best backs in the conference. The run defense is still a work in progress we knew it was going to be challenge,” said Davis.
Conference USA’s third-leading rusher Ben Lemay would play up to his superstar billing rushing for 50 yards on the opening drive of the game and put Charlotte ahead 7-0. He broke the century mark on the ground in the first-half alone.
Lemay would finish the afternoon with 30 carries for 159 yards.
Charlotte would also throw another change-up at the Panthers in starting Hasaan Klugh at quarterback. What looked like a nod to the senior playing his final game turned into Klugh’s best game of the season.
He went 24-31 passing for 268 yards and added another 48 on the ground.
“The change in QB played a factor because with Shirreffs you don’t have to worry about the run, with Klugh you do and that played a factor,” said Davis.
What helped FIU counteract their deficiencies stopping the run was making key plays that would help keep the momentum of the game in their favor.
As Charlotte was gashing the Panthers with the run game heading towards a two-score advantage, defensive tackle Teair Tart stripped backup running back Ishod Finger.
The fumble was scooped up by linebacker Sage Lewis who raced down the sideline for a 61-yard recovery and score, turning what would have been a 14-3 Charlotte lead into a 10-7 FIU advantage. The play served as the first career fumble recovery and touchdown for the star defender. Finger didn’t see another play the rest of the afternoon.
49er head coach Brad Lambert would turn to his star rusher and Lemay would continue to gain huge chunks of yards.
The most spectacular of his two first-half touchdowns came on a diving leap over a sea of defenders to put the underdog 49ers up 14-13.
But as they have all season long, FIU would rely on James Morgan.
On the opening drive, FIU would come out with four straight passes and Morgan finished the an efficient 15-20 for 242 yards and two touchdown passes.
The biggest of his throws came directly after a critical fourth down stop. Morgan completed a bomb to Austin Maloney for a 54-yard gain. However, the drive however would stall in Charlotte territory and FIU would settle for a Jose Borregales 28-yard field goal.
The reliable kicker would hit two first-half field goals to help the Panthers take a 20-14 lead into the half.
As Davis has all season long, he deferred the opening coin toss. That decision would come into play to start the second half.
“That’s a coaching philosophy thing because as a coach you would like to have your extra possession in the second half,” said Davis.
Offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky would dial-up a wide receiver pass with former starting quarterback Maurice Alexander hitting a wide open Shemar Thornton to put the offense in the red zone. Skrosky’s next play-call would be a shovel pass that Anthony Jones into the end zone to put FIU ahead 27-14.
On the ensuing drive when Charlotte needed a score to keep it close they would turn to their star back. The 49ers would march down the field with a nine-play, 90-yard drive. 57 of the yards would come via Lemay.
He had a 28-yard reception to start the drive and would end it with his third touchdown of the afternoon to bring the home team within six.
The Panthers would look to its ground attack to put the game away. They would drive 75 yards on 10 plays primarily on the legs of Anthony Jones.
After missing eight games because of the senseless drive-by shooting that injured he and teammate Mershawn Miller, Saturday’s game was truly the first time that Jones looked like he regained his opening week form.
“I just want to thank God and these guys are my brothers. The coaches told us how this would be a tough game, we just stayed on our keys and did what we know we can do,” said Jones.
Jones ran for 43 yards on the drive and caught a three-yard touchdown pass from Morgan to put FIU ahead 33-21. The Panthers would complete a two-point conversion to Tony Gaiter IV to make it a two-touchdown lead.
Charlotte would continue to trade scores with FIU as defensive coordinator Brent Guy’s troops had no answer for Lemay. He tied the Charlotte record for rushing touchdown in a game and broke the single-season rushing mark in the contest.
His fourth score came on an 11-play drive that once again saw Charlotte cut the FIU lead to a touchdown. But the resilient Panthers were again up to the task.
Napoleon Maxwell ripped off a 52-yard touchdown scamper against the stingy run defense to put FIU ahead for good.
Charlotte would add a late score to make it 42-35, but the failed onside kick attempt ended any hopes of a comeback.
For the Panthers the win helped them maintain their lead in the East division and gave the young team confidence that they can take a punch and return serve.
“We told our kids the entire week that this was going to be a fist fight. Nothing was going to be given they would have to earn it and I’m proud of the way they did that today.” said Davis.
FIU returns home to face for Marshall with a division title on the line while Charlotte is officially eliminated from bowl contention.