In what was undoubtedly FIU’s biggest game in the Butch Davis era, the Panthers showed that they still have further to go in turning the page on the “old FIU.”
More importantly, they’ve left the door open in Conference USA’s East division.
FAU won the 17th annual Shula Bowl 49-14, keeping their bowl hopes alive and defeating their rival for the second straight season.
“That’s how we should have been playing all year, good defense and running the ball, taking care of the ball with no turnovers,” said FAU head coach Lane Kiffin.
Coming into the game, the Owls knew that any hopes of them pulling off the upset would rest on the legs of Devin Singletary.
He would live up to his superstar billing.
“We knew that the kid is good, but what happened tonight is inexcusable,” said FIU head coach Butch Davis post-game.
Singletary was the catalyst for a nine-play, 75-yard drive that ended in him scoring on a one-yard touchdown run. He finished the first-half with 97 yards and two visits to the end-zone.
FAU would score five rushing touchdowns in the Panther red-zone.
FIU would lose their second defensive back in as many weeks to a targeting call on the following Owl drive.
Safety Richard Dames had a violent collision with FAU’s diminutive receiver Willie Wright on a swing pass that left Wright down for several minutes. Wright would walk off with the assistance of the Owl training staff.
“Merton Hanks and Gerald Austin (C-USA’s associate commissioner and head of officiating) called me and said the call last week should have been overturned, we’ll see what happens this week,” said Davis.
The Panther offense under James Morgan has been one of the most dynamic on Conference USA.
One of the ways they’ve been able to have sustained success is by protecting the football. However, FIU’s seventh turnover of the season couldn’t have come at a worse time.
A bizarre play happened when Morgan was readying for a quarterback sneak on the goal-line. The umpire had his hand on the center while Morgan had his hands underneath the center calling for the snap. Morgan pulled away from center but the umpire was still prepping to signal for play to begin.
“James was ready for the snap and the umpire was still in the area,” said Davis.
What followed was a fumble directly to the ground and was recovered by FAU linebacker Rashad Smith, in what was initially ruled a touchdown after Smith returned it 100 yards but was brought back to the two-yard line after a review.
The next FIU drive saw the ground game take them inside the red-zone.
A positive was running back Anthony Jones who made his return eight weeks after being shot multiple times in a drive-by shooting.
“What I missed most was just being around my brothers, I’m just thankful to be here and I’m feeling back to my old self physically. So I’m just ready to put the whole thing behind me,” said Jones.
He had four carries on the drive that ended in a botched fake field-goal attempt.
“We’ve nailed that play every time we’ve practiced it for the past month,” said Davis.
The Panthers got on the board after stopping FAU on a drive in which Kiffin would attempt a fourth-down conversion inside his own 35-yard line.
Morgan connected with Austin Maloney on a 13-yard touchdown strike and the score would be 14-7 in favor of FAU at the half.
The FIU offense would continue to find their footing coming out of halftime.
Morgan engineered a 11-play, 78-yard drive that would conclude in a Bryce Singleton leaping one-handed grab in the corner of the endzone to tie the game at 14.
However, FAU would respond like a team that had everything to gain and virtually nothing to lose.
DeAndre Johnson took the Owls 75 yards, converting a key third and two with his legs and a fourth and 11 by scrambling away from an onslaught of Panther defenders to find Jovon Durante in the back of the end-zone.
Johnson came on for starter Chris Robison midway through the second quarter and would finish the night with two touchdown passes.
However the run defense was the story.
Davis has talked about the need for his team’s run defense to improve for much of the season.
“After almost 10 games the excuse of the guys being young and having not played together much doesn’t cut it. This wasn’t adjustments being needed, it was guys not playing the right gaps and technical things,” said Davis.
FAU would continue to take advantage of the unit. Kerrith Whyte Jr. looked impressive as complimentary back to Singletary’s starring role.
The sophomore went over the 100-yard mark with 165 on the evening.
Singletary scored his third touchdown on an eight-play, 78-yard drive that he would finish with a seven-yard scamper. The all-conference performer ended the game with 184 yards on 27 carries.
FAU would add multiple late scores to pad the final score.
The Owls have three games left to become bowl-eligible and will look to pick up their fifth win against struggling Western Kentucky next week.
“It’s been a crazy year. Some things finally bounced our way and we’ll take it.” said Kiffin.
FIU is no longer in control of their own destiny with the loss. They are tied with MTSU in first-place and will look to rebound in San Antonio next week vs UTSA.