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Defense leads the way in FIU’s 24-17 victory on senior day

Spearheaded by an excellent defensive performance, FIU wins their final game of the year at Riccardo Silva Stadium.

Middle Tennessee v Florida International Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

In a season that’s had more and stops and starts than rush hour on I-95, the Panthers began their senior day, on-campus finale stuck in traffic. Although they never quite found the express lane, the defense led a gutsy 24-17 win in the team’s penultimate “home” game.

While ODU (1-8, 0-5) came into Riccardo Silva Stadium losers of their last seven games, Butch Davis’ and FIU (5-4, 3-3) needed each of the contest’s 60 minutes to secure the win.

The catalyst for the victory - FIU’s efforts against the ODU’s rushing attack. Despite the Monarchs entering the game ranked 124th in FBS football averaging just above 92 yards on the ground per game, Davis had to be pleased by the response of the same unit that gave up 471 last week.

“Terrific performance defensively by our guys. Holding them to 64 yards rushing and putting pressure on the quarterbacks all afternoon, getting a few sacks as well. It was a complete defensive performance,” said Davis.

JUCO transfer Teair Tart came to FIU last season as one of the highest-rated recruits in the history of the program. In his final game at The Cage, the 6-3, 290-pound Philadelphia native played a major factor in keeping the Monarchs’ rushing attack in check.

“The penetration and aggressiveness from the defensive line was outstanding, you saw a lot of tackles for loss. Teair Tart had several of them and a sack, along with Alexy (Jean-Baptiste) and Chris Whittaker,” said Davis.

Tart spent the majority of the afternoon in the ODU backfield, recording three tackles and the aforementioned sack from his defensive tackle spot. Additionally, his interior pressure opened up opportunities for Sage Lewis and Noah Curtis to have stops behind the line of scrimmage.

Despite ODU’s losing record, the Monarch defense has performed more than admirably. C-USA’s third-ranked defense more than lived up to their billing. In the first half, the Panthers surrendered three sacks and the ODU pass rush kept FIU quarterback James Morgan under duress throughout the half.

The first big play of the game came when Morgan lost the ball as he was attempting to throw. ODU defensive end Derek Wilder jarred the ball loose and the Monarchs recovered the fumble inside of the FIU five-yard-line. The play was later ruled as a “wild snap” by the officials. On the next play, ODU running back Robert Washington scored his first touchdown since 2016, finding the endzone for a four-yard touchdown to give ODU the opening score of the game.

The Panthers would drive into the opposing red zone and Anthony Jones appeared to have scored from eight yards out, however, it was later ruled that Jones’ knee was down at the one-yard line. The following second-down play would result in Jones’ being stopped for a four-yard loss and FIU have to settle for a 21-yard Jose Borregales field-goal after an incompletion.

Borregales would hit field goals from 31 and 42-yards out respectively on back-to-back FIU drives to put them ahead 9-7.

While the Monarchs’ defense has been up to the task throughout the season, Bobby Wilder’s offense has been a work in progress, as they’ve been searching for consistent quarterback play.

ODU is last in FBS in total offense and third to last in scoring offense. Those dubious numbers resulted in true freshman Hayden Wolff earning his first career start on Saturday and marking the third quarterback to start for Wilder on the season.

“The story of the day for us is the play of Hayden Wolff. He showed tremendous poise and he’ll be the guy going forward for us,” said Wilder.

Despite the change, the Monarchs’ offense didn’t fare any better, as the finished with 56 yards on 26 plays at halftime. Wolff would go 9-for-12 with 45 yards on the half, while Stone Smartt, who started the first five games of the year was rotated in for zone-read plays.

As his team drops their eight consecutive game, Wilder didn’t give in to questions about his job status.

“My goal is to be the head coach in 2020 and Hayden is going to be part of that,” said Wilder.

For the FIU side of things, the quarterback rotation wasn’t necessarily expected.

“To be honest, it definitely was a bit of a shock. We got a bit of an idea during pregame when we saw the QB’s warm-up and he was getting a lot of reps. We prepared for the other two kids who are a little different. But that’s part of the game, you have to be ready for whoever they put in and our kids did a good job,” said Davis.

Both teams suffered through mediocre offensive play, as the score heading into halftime would remain 9-7. Following a 32-yard field-goal attempt by Borregales that sailed wide-right, the Panthers’ offense engineered their first huge gain of the afternoon.

As he was being pressured, Morgan rolled out of the pocket and threw off of his back foot and found receiver Shemar Thornton streaking behind the ODU safeties for a juggling 54-yard-gain.

“A year ago when guys got banged up, he did a really good job. He’s explosive and one of the things that really define receivers are their ability to track the ball. He did an excellent job of keeping his focus and he gave us that big play that we needed to score a touchdown,” said Davis.

Thornton has been a pleasant surprise for the offense, especially with the graduation of C.J. Worton and Bryce Singleton having not seen the field due to injury. The junior entered the season with only 17 career catches, but he now has doubled that mark in one season and ended the day with a career-high 125 yards on six catches.

“It’s all about staying humble and waiting on my opportunity. It wasn’t frustrating as much as it was just waiting on my timing,” said Thornton.

He was the leading receiver for the Panthers, as Morgan finished the day 20-of-33 for 252 yards. Thornton talked about developing a relationship with his quarterback during the offseason.

“In the summer, James came to me and said if nobody else believes in you, I do. He texted me every day to come in and watch film and we developed a bond,” said Thornton.

Napoleon Maxwell would capitalize on his big grab by taking the next play for a 13-yard score to put FIU ahead 16-7.

Following a Nick Rice 22-yard field goal to bring ODU within six, the Panthers would respond by going on a 10-play, 65-yard drive that ended with Morgan calling his own number on a quarterback sneak.

Davis would keep the offense on the field and for the second time in two weeks, offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky dialed-up a trick play, calling for a Sterling Palmer TE throw that saw him find Tony Gaiter for the two-point conversion.

Wilder’s club managed to put together one final scoring drive, embarking on a timely, three-play drive, ending in Lala Davis scoring on a 10-yard TD run. The Monarchs’ defense forced one more possession for the offense, but senior Olin Cushion III sealed the victory with an interception.

“On that last play, I had to hide that I was bleeding from the referee. Dorian Hall wanted to switch (safety) spots with me, but I told him that I’m hiding from the ref on that side of the field,” said Cushion.

As for playing his final game at The Cage, he offered that it was extremely emotional.

“It didn’t hit me till I gave my mom the roses pregame. That’s when I started feeling it and then everybody kept asking me if I was good. The tears started flowing after that, so I had to get my mind ready to rock and I’m glad we closed it out with a win,” said Cushion.