The game will only count for a single win in the standings. However, Saturday night’s win looked like a team taking out a season’s worth of frustrations on their opponent.
Following a disappointing opening month of the season, FIU (2-3, 0-2) came out of the bye week and for the first time this year resembled the team that was a trendy pick to win Conference USA’s East division.
With their first win over an FBS opponent in UMass (1-5) under the team’s belt, FIU enters a crucial match-up with C-USA foe Charlotte.
For now, Butch Davis’ club will savor the definitive victory over the Minutemen.
"Results like tonight don’t happen by accident. Our guys were upset at the way we played to start the season and the level of commitment during the bye week, our guys were balling in the bye and it carried over to tonight,” said Davis.
The biggest question on the minds on FIU fans entering the game was answered 75 minutes prior to kickoff when star linebacker Sage Lewis emerged from the tunnel in pads.
C-USA’s preseason pick for Defensive Player of the Year wasted no time in making his presence felt, intercepting UMass quarterback Michael Curtis on the third Minutemen drive of the game.
The pick ties Lewis for the conference lead in interceptions (2) and led to a five-play, 47-yard drive that ended in a 30-yard strike from James Morgan to receiver Tony Gaiter IV for a touchdown.
Gaiter IV hauled in seven catches for a career-high 103 yards - the first 100-yard performance for the Richmond Heights, Florida product.
"I've been working a lot to get faster, get in better shape and I wanted to make my last year here my best," said Gaiter IV.
Morgan was well-protected for the entirety of his evening - despite starting left tackle D’Antne Demery being out due to his ejection against Louisiana Tech and Lyndell Hudson Jr. making his first career start at right tackle.
"Lyndell played great tonight, those guys on the [offensive] line are my best friends on the team and they did their job," said Morgan.
The redshirt senior quarterback finished his night going 19-for-31 with 263 yards and two touchdowns passes, giving way to backup Kaylan Wiggins with just under three minutes left in the third quarter.
FIU's offensive line as a whole paved the way for just under 300 yards in the first half and a total of 541 on the night.
After leading the entire nation in punt return yards last season, teams have had a heightened sense of awareness about kicking to Maurice Alexander.
No matter whether it was Mark Whipple last season or Walt Bell this year, UMass missed the memo about giving FIU’s dynamic returner a chance to get his hands on the ball.
Alexander fielded a bouncing punt at his 10-yard-line and eluded the initial Minutemen defenders, cutting across the field and outracing the remaining coverage to take the kick for a 90-yard punt return TD - his second in as many seasons against UMass.
“Coaches were telling me all week that I probably wouldn’t get a return, so when I saw this one bounce to me, I was happy because I knew I had some action,” said Alexander.
The return was the second-longest in FIU program history, behind T.Y. Hilton’s 97-yard score against Florida Atlantic in 2011.
Kicker Jose Borregales nailed two first-half field goals from inside of 30 yards, as FIU took a 34-0 lead into halftime.
He finished the night 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, putting a shaky 2-of-6 start to the season in the rear-view.
“I told Jose that even Tiger Woods hits a few in the water, just keep your confidence and mechanics solid and the rest will take care of itself,” said Davis.
FIU’s run game showed the explosiveness that gave them the third-highest rushing attack in C-USA last season, with the trio of Anthony Jones, Napoleon Maxwell, and D’Vonte Price combining for 233 yards on the night.
“I couldn’t have been happier with the run game. Those are the type of runs that really get us going as an offense,” said Davis.
If the team released a season’s worth of frustration, the defensive line let out 18 games worth of pent-up energy, holding the UMass rushing attack to 38 yards on the ground and keeping Curtis under duress throughout the evening.
UMass' signal-caller would finish the evening 5-of-19 for 66 yards with two interceptions.
Arkansas transfer Chris Whittaker earned his first career sack, highlighting the efforts of the defensive unit that had eight quarterback hurries.
Third downs on both sides of the ball have been an Achilles’ heel for the Panthers throughout the season.
FIU stood firm on defense - holding UMass to 1-of-13 on third downs - and were efficient on offense converting 10-of-19 third down attempts.
“We were horrible on third downs early on in the season, I think we had a 2-for-15. So to have this type of night really sets us up for success,” said Davis.
For Walt Bell’s Minutemen, they’ll have to regroup after gaining some momentum following their victory over Akron last week.
Meanwhile, the Panthers now set their sights on Charlotte - more specifically 49er running back Benny Lemay who has a career 337 yards and five touchdowns against the Panthers.
“The run defense was phenomenal tonight and it’s all about playing sound with fundamentals and technique. If you keep your gap integrity, you can go make all the plays you want, but if you don’t any running back with decent vision is going to gash you,” said Davis.
The shutout was only the second in FIU history - the first since 2002 and the 115 total yards of offense allowed was the lowest in FIU’s 18 years as a program.