The last time Butch Davis won a game on the ground of Marlins Park, South Florida was squarely in the midst of recounting votes to decide whether George W. Bush or Al Gore would be the President of the United States.
6,937 days after a 52-6 victory over Boston College as the head coach of Miami, Davis’ FIU Panthers defeated his old team 30-24, earning the biggest victory in school history and certifiably buried memories of the infamous 2006 brawl in the process.
“Tonight was evidence of what can happen when you don’t give in and just believe in each other. We came in two-touchdown or more underdogs and we decided to take ownership of this program. They did everything I could have dreamed of the past two weeks to get this win,” said Davis.
For the 18-year-old program that’s had to live in virtual irrelevancy across the South Florida sports landscape, there’s no doubt that Saturday’s win extinguished nearly two decades of FIU fans’ pain having to look up at “Miami’s” hometown university.
The contest on the grounds of the hallowed Miami Orange Bowl was supposed to be the final FIU (6-5, 4-4 C-USA) home game of the year.
It was anything but that, as the moment Miami (Fla.) (6-5, 4-4 ACC) took the field, resounding cheers rained down on the field from the Hurricane faithful.
When the Panthers took the field shortly after, it sounded as if Notre Dame circa 1988 was the opponent, with a heavy chorus of boos greeting the “home” team.
“We knew there would be a lot of noise and most of them would be Miami fans, so on Wednesday we tried to create as much noise as possible, because we don’t play in a lot of atmospheres like this,” said Davis.
As for the players on the field, they welcomed the environment.
“We thrive off of it, to be honest, we loved it. When we took the field, we wanted to show them who we are,” said quarterback James Morgan.
FIU’s signal-caller finished the night 16-for-30 with 160 yards and two touchdown passes.
The Panthers, however, wouldn’t be phased by the hostile atmosphere. On Miami’s opening drive, cornerback Stantley Thomas-Oliver intercepted Hurricanes’ quarterback Jarren Williams on the second play of the drive, returning the pick 23 yards and giving FIU field position inside of the Miami redzone.
“We should have had a few more interceptions, but I’m happy with the way our defense performed and Stantley made a great play on that ball,” said Davis.
Panthers’ kicker Jose Borregales would open the scoring with a 29-yard field goal.
After a four-play drive that resulted in a Miami punt, FIU quarterback James Morgan led the team on an 11-play, 80-yard drive that ended in seven points - the first time in almost a month that the Panthers’ offense engineered a first-quarter touchdown.
On a 3rd-and-10 from the Miami 29-yard-line, Shemar Thornton took a screen pass 29 yards, making multiple Miami defenders miss in the process to give FIU a 10-point lead. Morgan, for the first time since suffering a knee injury against Western Kentucky, looked fully-healthy. He went 5-of-9 for 72 yards and the Thornton catch and run TD pass.
While the offense showed their first signs of life in a stretch, the defense, specifically the run defensive line dominated the line of scrimmage against a quality opponent for the first time in arguably two years.
Following the loss to Florida Atlantic, Davis talked about the bye week being much-needed, as many of his players had been fighting through injuries during the six-game stretch without a week off.
The player most helped by the rest was arguably linebacker Sage Lewis.
Conference USA’s preseason pick for Defensive Player of the Year has been bothered all season by a hamstring injury suffered in the loss to Louisiana Tech. The Miami native had his best game of the year on Saturday night, recording 10 tackles, including a fourth-down stop on the FIU goal line and an interception of Williams to open the second half.
“We were calling them University of Coral Gables all week, not even Miami because we believe we’re Miami’s real university. Once I was fully healthy, I was ready to show them what FIU was all about,” said Lewis.
The defense as a whole forced three interceptions of Miami’s redshirt freshman quarterback, as he finished the night 19-of-36 for 249 yards with two touchdowns and three costly interceptions.
For an FIU pass defense that’s entered the game ranked 15th in the nation, allowing just 180.3 yards per game, they had a chance to prove against top-tier competition that they’re not just a product of Conference USA.
Williams didn’t complete have a completion in the second half till the 11:03 mark of the final quarter.
FIU’s offense would add three points before halftime in the form of a Borregales 50-yard field goal to take a 13-0 lead into the intermission.
For the junior kicker, Saturday’s win was a level of redemption for what’s been an erratic year.
“It’s just all about keeping my confidence, I know what I can do and I definitely wanted to show out tonight,” said Borregales.
In the third quarter, FIU had the momentum of the game - and a portion of the crowd on their side, with the stadium erupting on an interception by linebacker Jamal Gates and a fourth-down stuff by the defensive line.
Tony Gaiter IV, whose father played for the Hurricanes in the ‘90s, opened the scoring in the final quarter on a 13-yard touchdown reception from Morgan that saw Gaiter uncovered due to a busted Miami coverage.
Down 23-3, with under 10 minutes left, the Hurricanes fought back to make it 23-17 on scores by running back Cam’Ron Harris and receiver Mark Pope.
However, following a Hurricane punt, FIU running back Anthony Jones iced the game away for the Panthers with a 37-yard touchdown run. In his first start after missing the Florida Atlantic game with a calf injury, Jones rushed for 112 yards on 16 carries.
Dee Wiggins would close the scoring with a three-yard TD reception from Williams on Miami’s final drive that went nine-plays, 63-yards. The ensuing onside kick was recovered by FIU, who lined up in victory formation to run out the clock.
“This is one of the lowest moments in this proud program’s history,” said Miami head coach Manny Diaz postgame.
As for the Panthers, they become bowl-eligible with their sixth win and the win soothes the disappointment of losses prior.
“In our leadership meeting, we talk about when you don’t achieve the goals that you set out to, what you do from there says a lot about your character and I think this win says a lot about us,” said Morgan.