Given the fact that the last two meetings between the two teams have been decided by a mere eight points, it’s no coincidence that Saturday’s pivotal Conference USA East tilt was tightly contested - for a half.
In front of the homecoming crowd, FIU (3-3, 1-2) overpowered visiting Charlotte (2-4. 0-2) 48-23 to break even on the season and more importantly, they captured their first conference victory, inserting themselves into the crowded division logjam behind East-leading Western Kentucky.
In a start the surprised nobody, the Niners featured star running back Benny Lemay early and often. Lemay would account for over 100 all-purpose yards in the first quarter alone, busting loose for a 46-yard gain on Charlotte’s opening drive. He would finish the opening half with 93 yards on the ground and 83 as a receiver, including a dazzling 43-yard touchdown reception on a 3rd and 11.
“I’m happy we won’t be facing him anymore,” said Davis about the graduating Lemay.
“There’s some traits that separate the good backs from the great ones. He has the combination of power, speed, and vision. The play may have been designed to go one way, but the hole is a different way and he turns two-yard runs into four and five,” said Davis.
While Lemay would get his, the much-maligned FIU defensive line deserves credit for their play which very much shaped the outcome of Saturday’s game.
Following Lemay’s big gain on the opening drive, the line held the next three carries to four yards, forcing a red zone stop and holding the 49ers to a Jonathan Cruz 31-yard field-goal.
A pair of SEC transfers provided the first big play in favor of FIU when Arkansas transfer Alexy Jean-Baptiste stripped Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds on a scramble and Kentucky transfer Chris Whittaker recovered the fumble at the 49ers’ 33-yard-line.
“Getting Alexy has added a dimension that we haven’t had since I’ve been here. When it’s a clear passing down, we’re able to take our two defensive ends and move them inside which gives us four very athletic defensive linemen,” said Davis.
Jean-Baptiste spoke about how the transfer process has been for him.
“Over here, it’s a real team. That wasn’t the case over at Arkansas, the guys brought me in and made me feel like family from day one. And I think that showed on the field tonight,” said Jean-Baptiste.
The FIU offense would promptly cash-in on the miscue when James Morgan found Shemar Thornton in the left corner of the endzone to put the Panthers ahead 7-3.
While Lemay’s success against the Panthers has been well-noted, FIU’s Napoleon Maxwell has been equally problematic for Charlotte in the previous two meetings. The sixth-year senior entered the game with 12 carries for 178 yards and two touchdowns in his career versus the Niners. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the third time in his career, finishing the night with 114 yards on 15 carries.
FIU’s second break of the night came on a blindside sack of Morgan late in the second quarter. Charlotte defensive end Markees Watts drove Morgan to the turf, jarring the ball loose in the process. In the ensuing scrum that saw multiple Charlotte players signal that they had recovered the fumble, Panthers’ running back D’Vonte Price came away with the ball behind the pile - and advanced it to midfield.
“Talk about awareness, that was a huge play for us. D’Vonte didn’t quit on the play and that was a huge momentum shift in our direction,” said Davis.
Instead of having possession at the FIU 20-yard-line with two minutes to potentially take a lead into halftime, Charlotte was forced to head back out on defense. The drive ended with Morgan finding running back Anthony Jones for a short touchdown pass to give the Panthers a 28-17 advantage at the half.
Charlotte head coach Will Healy noted that break was huge for the Panthers.
“There’s some times in the game where you would love to have a break go your way, the ball is on the ground and we have to go recover it. It was a close game and if we get it, we have an opportunity to tie or go ahead, but give credit to FIU. That’s a good football team, that established the line of scrimmage and ran the football well,” said Healy.
Maxwell’s running back ng back mate in Jones would assert himself in the second half, scoring from five and 41 yards out for the first four-touchdown performance of his FIU career.
“I love running with these guys, we have a good rhythm and we know each other well, so it’s no issue when we have to change out for each other,” said Jones.
He finished the evening with 117 yards and the offensive line paved the way for back-to-back 250-yard rushing games. “The offensive line is really coming together. We had to move Shane McGough to center and Dallas Connell to guard, along with building that depth with Lyndell (Hudson Jr.) and Devontay Taylor,” said Davis.
For Charlotte, the evening could easily be summed up by the missed opportunities that snowballed into giving a talented FIU team extra chances.
“I’m proud of the way we fight, I just wish we were rewarded on Saturday,” said head coach Healy. “But we’re not executing like we need to. If we have self-inflicted wounds, don’t tackle well and don’t get aligned properly, that’s what’s going to happen.”
While they finished with 217 rushing yards, the passing game was virtually non-existent against a stifling Panther secondary. Reynolds finished the evening 6-of-10 for 114 yards.
As for the surging Panthers, they welcome a struggling UTEP program to The Cage next Saturday, with a chance to even conference record and make a push at the top of the division.