From the moment FIU walked off the turf at Riccardo Silva Stadium following their disappointing loss to Marshall in the regular season finale, all of the talk was about looking forward to playing in a bowl game and closing the season out with a win.
As they have all year long, the Panthers showed a resilient nature and overcame a sluggish start to beat Toledo 35-32 in the 2018 Bahamas Bowl.
On the opening kickoff, wideout Bryce Singleton fumbled inside of the Panther 10-yard line.
The kickoff appeared as if it would bounce into the endzone, however it stopped short and Singleton was forced to field the ball.
After hesitating, he darted to the left side of the field and was stripped by the Toledo kick coverage.
Two plays later, Rockets’ running back Bryant Koback would score from three yards out to put Toledo on the board.
Few players may embody resiliency as much as FIU’s Christian Alexander.
With the last-minute announcement that starting quarterback James Morgan would miss the game due to injury, all eyes would be on Alexander.
He would rise to the occasion in his final collegiate game.
FIU defensive coordinator Brent Guy’s unit has struggled all season against the run.
Those struggles makes their effort against one of the nation’s top rushing teams that much more noteworthy. The Panthers held Toledo to 33 yards on 16 carries in the first-half with many of those stops coming at or behind the line of scrimmage.
After an FIU three and out, Shakif Seymour and the Rockets offense would eat up five minutes of clock, but would have to settle for a Jameson Vest 28-yard field goal to put Toledo ahead 10-0.
One of the best stories of the 2018 college football season may be the return of Panthers running back Anthony Jones. The Miami native was injured in a drive-by shooting four days after scoring twice in the season opening game against Indiana. After missing eight weeks, Jones returned to the field and has been finding his footing ever since.
On the ensuing drive, he would have three carries for 19 yards and a touchdown to put FIU on the board.
The scoring drive was helped by a pass interference call drawn by C.J. Worton and offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky dialing up a wide receiver pass from Maurice Alexander to Austin Maloney.
After both teams traded punts, Toledo would take possession on the FIU 20-yard line due to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Noah Curtis.
Guy’s defense however, would rise to the occasion.
While the unit has been a work in progress, they ranked 12th in FBS in turnover margin forcing 21 turnovers.
Their 22nd couldn’t have come at a better time.
As Bryant Koback was heading toward the endzone, he was stripped and the fumble was recovered by safety Rishard Dames, thwarting Toledo’s chances at points.
The Panthers would capitalize on the mistake, going on a seven-play, 96-yard drive with Alexander accounting for 77 yards.
He used his legs on a 41-yard scamper up the left sideline and connected with tight end Sterling Palmer for a 36-yard touchdown pass to give FIU their first lead of the game 14-10 which they took into halftime.
Toledo quarterback Eli Peters has filled in admirably since starter Mitchell Guadgani went down with a shoulder injury. However, he’s hasn’t been the rushing threat that Guadgani was during the season.
Maybe Rockets head coach Jason Candle sensed as much.
Coming out of the intermission Peters looked more decisive in using his legs.
Toledo drove 75 yards on eight plays, 28 of which came on a Peters scramble. The drive concluded with Peters finding Jon’Vea Johnson for a 7-yard score to put them ahead 17-14.
Both teams would again exchange punts heading into the fourth quarter. Afterwards, Jones would make his second visit to the endzone.
He broke away from the from the Toledo defense on a 30-yard run to put FIU ahead 21-17.
The following Panther drive would be Christian Alexander’s. He went 3-3 for 44 yards including a seven-yard touchdown pass to Maurice Alexander extending their lead to 11.
Peters would respond on the ensuing drive, going 5-6 and finding Diontae Johnson for a score and then Cody Thompson for the two-point conversion to bring Toledo within a field goal.
Needing a drive to close out the game, Christian Alexander converted two third-downs. One with his legs and another on a 32-yard completion to Singleton. Then on fourth-down with the game in the balance, he connected with senior Tony Gaiter IV to pick up the first-down.
The Rockets out of timeouts could no longer stop the clock and Jones took the next play for an 18-yard score to put the game out of reach.
Alexander would be named player of the game as he finished his final game 17-26 for 209 yards and one touchdown pass, along with 11 carries for 83 yards.