A gloomy and overcast sky hovered over Floyd Stadium for the duration Saturday’s homecoming contest between FIU (4-4, 2-3) and Middle Tennessee State (3-5, 2-2). The weather put a damper on the homecoming festivities - but the Blue Raiders decisively washed away any chances of the Panthers extending their three-game win streak.
With victories that have come against opponents boasting a combined record of 4-16, there was no doubt that despite MTSU’s 2-5 mark, it would be a tough task to win for an FIU program that hasn’t had a victory in Murfreesboro since 2011 - the penultimate season in the Mario Cristobal-era.
The culprit responsible for the Panthers 50-17 loss - 471 rushing yards by Middle Tennessee - the second-most ever allowed by FIU in a single game.
“Until you see the film, you can’t fully assess what happened against the run. But I saw things like spilled counter plays, having to wonder whether the support from the linebackers was there, it’s a multitude of things. But the fact of the matter is what happened tonight was unacceptable,” said Butch Davis.
For what it’s worth, his team looked poised to win after 30 minutes of play, taking a 17-14 lead into the locker room, despite two first-half fumbles. FIU quarterback James Morgan tossed touchdowns to Maurice Alexander and Tony Gaiter IV, finishing the day 16-for-32 with 208 yards.
However, during the 20-minute intermission, mother nature provided a torrential downpour and both teams were greeted by sheets of rain and a wind that was just as substantial. MTSU, or more specifically - Asher O’Hara responded by scoring a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half. On the eight-play, 60-yard drive, O’Hara had six carries for 39 yards and the six-yard TD put the Blue Raiders ahead 21-17.
“The rain was horrible in the third quarter. There’s nothing that you can do to prepare for that type of weather. I thought that we did a good job of digging ourselves out of a hole early, gained our composure and took a lead. But the rain made it extraordinarily difficult to move the ball, we kept going three and out repeatedly,” said Davis.
The third fumble for the Panthers came on the ensuing kickoff when the normally sure-handed Maurice Alexander fumbled the kickoff at the FIU 17-yard-line. Still, the Panther defensive line held MTSU out of the endzone, forcing a 30-yard Crews Holt field goal to put the home team ahead by a touchdown.
But, the story of the game would be a third quarter that saw MTSU outscore the Panthers by 23 points, out-rush them by 172 yards, and outgain them by a total of 158 yards, en route to the 33-point victory.
“They outplayed us in all three phases and the stuff that we did tonight is what sabotaged us early in the season. You turn over the ball three times inside of your 30-yard-line and we couldn’t get much done offensively. Give Middle credit, it was a great game for them,” said Davis.
Conference USA’s 10th ranked rushing attack put forth not just one 100-yard rusher, but three, with Jayy McDonald, Terelle West and O’Hara all eclipsing the century mark. The most glaring stat of the evening - MTSU threw for only 25 yards in the victory and attempted only two passes in their dominant second half. O’Hara went 6-for-12 with 25 yards passing, but ended the night as the game’s leading rusher with 159 yards on 22 carries and two scores.
“It was a good combination of power plays with the running backs and quarterback keepers. The gameplan fit perfectly for them, they didn’t even attempt five passes in the second half and it’s not like they needed to because we didn’t put them in a position to throw,” said Davis.
For Rick Stockstill’s Blue Raiders, the rushing outburst propelled them to their third victory on the season and the first one that they’ve managed to secure a win when winning the turnover battle. They now sit ahead of the Panthers in the division standings by a game.
“I’m really proud of this team because it’s been a rough three weeks. They faced this challenge and the adversity from the last few weeks and responded with a level of energy and passion that was amazing,” said Stockstill.
He also noted the fact that the weather may have played a significant factor in his team’s ability to overpower FIU.
“It was 100 percent due to the conditions. We didn’t come into this game saying we were going to run for almost 500 yards. When that monsoon came and especially with the wind, we didn’t have any choice but to run and I’m proud of our offensive line,” said Stockstill.
In a season that began with conference championship aspirations, the goal for the Panthers now is to just take it one week at a time - and try to extend their consecutive bowl streak.
“We can’t just put this one behind us. As a staff, we have to take a serious look at this game film. Because whatever fires we start, we better find a way to put then out or else another team is going to come in and do what they just did to us tonight,” said Davis.