If there’s one thing that Conference USA has taught us this season, it’s to expect the unexpected. FIU (4-3, 2-2) entered the game as four-score favorites over visiting UTEP (1-5, 0-3). While it wasn’t quite the lopsided contest that some expected, the fact of the matter is in just shy of a month, the Panthers have managed to correct the course of their season and are now above .500 for the first time this season.
Now, the question is - can they sustain the momentum as they leave South Florida for the first time in 29 days?
“We have to take it one game at a time, because we already saw what looking ahead will do to us. We’re 0-0 each week,” said Butch Davis.
The first point of note at kickoff was the absence of starting middle linebacker Sage Lewis and strong safety Olin Cushion III. Lewis was in street clothes while Cushion III was dressed and fully participated in pregame warm-ups.
“Sage still has the hamstring injury and we decided to rest him, Olin was a bit of a different case. We dressed him and in case of an emergency he could have played, but we wanted to play it safe,” said Davis.
Jones, a redshirt sophomore made his first career start and recorded a game-high nine tackles.
“I knew on Wednesday that I was going to start, the major thing was not being nervous. Once I got onto the bus to the team hotel on Friday, I felt myself getting calm and I could just focus on the gameplan,” said Jones.
While the defensive stalwarts were missing, the rest of the unit picked up the slack. For the second consecutive week, FIU’s performance against the run was outstanding, holding the seventh-ranked rushing attack in Conference USA to under three yards per carry in the first half.
The defensive line, in particular, were in the backfield for the entirety of the evening, with seven tackles for loss from the defensive line, including a combined 2.5 sacks from ends Alexy Jean-Baptiste and Noah Curtis.
In what’s become the norm for the Panthers, the secondary blanketed the Miners’ receivers throughout the game, with UTEP passing for a minuscule 34 yards in the opening half and a total of 151 for the game.
Nickel corner Rishard Dames had his second interception of the season when he picked off Miners quarterback Brandon Jones on the third play of the game.
Dorian Hall would get the starting assignment in place of Cushion III and on the next UTEP drive, picked off an errant Jones throw and took it back for a pick-six. However, Andrew Tarver would be flagged for lining up offsides.
The Miners would ride the legs of senior running back Treyvon Hughes, embarking on a 13-play, 75-yard drive that chewed up over seven minutes of the first quarter to score the game’s first touchdown on a Hughes one-yard run.
A week ago against Charlotte, it was the Panther rushing attack that spearheaded the victory. This week, quarterback James Morgan was tasked with engineering the FIU offense in the initial stages of the game.
He connected with Shemar Thornton on a nine-yard strike in the corner of the south endzone, squeezing the pass in-between two UTEP defenders to put FIU ahead 10-7.
“We called a slant and go backside and Shemar had a good matchup with the safety inside, he made a great grab and it worked out for us,” said Morgan.
Jean-Baptiste and Tart would bring the Miners backup quarterback in Kai Locksley down in the endzone on the ensuing drive for a safety.
“Alexy played outstanding tonight and the entire defensive line did as well. We’re finally getting enough depth at the position where we can rotate like we would like to and keep guys fresh,” said Davis.
For UTEP, second-year head coach Dana Dimel has been facing an uphill climb since he took the job in December of 2017. What’s promising is that his team was competitive with FIU for three quarters. However, there’s not enough depth or playmakers on his team to overcome six penalties and a turnover.
Anthony Jones provided the highlight of the evening when he took a short Morgan throw up the sideline, spinning past a UTEP linebacker in the process and racing 61 yards to the Miner four-yard line. Jones would finish off the drive with a three-yard touchdown run, his fourth consecutive game with a score.
He would add a 65-yard run late in the final quarter to give him 155 all-purpose yards on the night.
Jose Borregales was perfect on the night for the second straight game, hitting kicks from 46, 34, and 32 yards, putting the subpar start to the season behind him.
“It’s about remaining confident. As a kicker, I know instantaneously when I hit my A ball. If it’s good, I don’t even have to look and if it’s not, it’s the worst feeling in the world,” said Borregales.
For FIU, they pull even in Conference USA play, as they hit the road to play Middle Tennessee State next week.