Saturday’s 37-7 loss to Florida Atlantic was very much a perfect encapsulation of the Panthers’ entire 2019 season. Fleeting glimmers of promise for FIU, only to be snuffed out by their miscues and unforced errors.
“Here’s the summary for the 2019 season. The self-inflicted wounds are every week. We have a chance to cut the lead to three and the (field goal) holder bobbles the snap and throws an interception. The punter can’t hang on to the snap because it’s over his head, those things are impossible to overcome against a good football team,” said FIU head coach Butch Davis.
Reminiscent of the Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State games, the Panthers trailed by only one score heading into the intermission - and similar to the aforementioned games - horrendous third-quarter play doomed any chances of FIU pulling off the upset in the 18th annual Shula Bowl.
FAU (7-3, 5-1) outscored FIU (5-5, 3-4) by 15 points in the game’s penultimate quarter, breaking open what was a 13-7 game at the half, to a 21-point advantage for the Owls who now have their sights set on an East division crown.
“Winning this rivalry game three consecutive years is really special for our fans and players. We have former players come back and you would like to think it impacts recruiting, because those guys (FIU) are in our own backyard,” said FAU head coach Lane Kiffin.
As for the Panthers, their backs are squarely against the wall, needing a victory against crosstown rival Miami or East division foe Marshall to become bowl-eligible.
Right now, a postseason berth is the furthest thing away from Davis’ mind.
“To be honest, the defense were in horrible position for most of the night. I’m pretty proud of the way they held up when they had to defend the short field. But we have to do a much better job on offense. If we can’t run the football more effectively, our offense won’t be able to put up points. We can’t put James (Morgan) or any quarterback in those types of positions,” said Davis.
For the second time in three weeks, mother nature provided rain during an FIU game. Unlike the MTSU game, it wasn’t a torrential downpour, but it was enough to cause punter Tommy Heatherly’s second mishandled snap on a punt attempt. Following an incompletion on a third-and-short, the ball slipped away from Heatherly as he started to take his steps to punt, resulting in FAU taking over inside of the Panthers’ 40-yard-line.
Jeff Copp’s defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing drive, with the FIU defensive coordinator dialing up a safety blitz on Kiffin’s fourth-down attempt, resulting in Chris Robison’s pass falling incomplete.
The next set of errors would come two drives later when after the defense forced a 2nd & 20 outside of the FIU redzone, back-to-back offsides penalties from the defensive line would spot FAU 10 yards, moving inconsistent FAU kicker Vladmir Rivas from a potential 43-yard field goal attempt to a more reasonable 33-yard try, which Rivas hit to put the Owls’ ahead 10-0.
Sixth-year senior Napoleon Maxwell would give FIU their first score of the game, busting off a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the drive. Maxwell would finish the game as FIU’s Shula Bowl MVP and their most productive offensive player with 95 yards and the touchdown run. The play was the longest run by a Panther in 10 seasons - since T.Y. Hilton’s 80-yard score against Troy in 2010.
On FIU’s final drive of the first half, the Panthers would embark on a 10-play, 56-yard drive to the FAU 21-yard-line. But once again, their chance at taking a halftime lead would be torpedoed by their own doing. Left tackle D’Antne Demery was called for holding at the Owls’ 13-yard line, resulting in a 2nd & 17. The offense would have to settle for a Jose Borregales 38-yard field-goal attempt.
What ensued was a bobbled snap by holder Alec Hallman, followed by him corralling the loose ball, only to throw an interception to FAU cornerback Meiko Dotson. Instead of cutting the Owl lead to three points, It would be a six-point deficit at the half.
“It would have been a great boost for own emotions and psyche if we can cut it to three heading into half. We took the ball downfield, moved it and the fade route to Austin two plays prior was one of the best throws I’ve seen James (Morgan) make, we just have to execute there,” said Davis.
FAU opened the third quarter by going on a seven-play, 75-yard drive that was highlighted by a 45-yard one-handed grab by DeAngelo Antoine. The South Florida transfer finished the night as the game’s leading receiver with nine catches for 125 yards.
Four plays later, All-Conference tight end Harrison Bryant hauled in his second touchdown of the year on a five-yard connection with Robison. The ensuing two-point conversion attempt was also caught by Bryant to make the game 21-7.
Robison finished his night 22-for-37 with 298 yards and one touchdown pass. For the redshirt sophomore, the game helped cement his status as one of C-USA’s top signal-callers.
After the score is when the wheels fell off for FIU, as Austin Maloney bobbled the ensuing kickoff as he called for a fair catch. Instead of the Panthers having possession at the 25-yard-line, they had to start the drive from their six-yard-line. Three plays later, Tony Gaiter IV fumbled on a reception, giving FAU the ball inside the Panthers’ redzone.
Owls’ running back Malcolm Davidson would give FAU a three-score lead with his six-yard TD run. Davidson ended the night with 144 yards on 17 carries and three visits to the endzone, including the game’s next score from 23 yards out. The redshirt freshman took home MVP honors for the Owls.
“I told our staff before the year that there’s a lot of good backs, but I bet you Malcolm (Davidson) will lead our team or even this conference,” said Kiffin.
Rivas added a meaningless field goal in the fourth quarter to close the scoring.
For Kiffin’s Owls, a division title is in their sights as they and Marshall are the top two teams in the East division standings. Continued strong outings from his defense will be crucial down the stretch.
“The story of the night for us is our defense, outside of the one long run, we only gave up 30 yards rushing (37). I was extremely pleased that we made them one-dimensional and hit their quarterback,” said Kiffin.
As for the Panthers, that fact is especially stinging, given their own conference title hopes entering the year. In the immediate future, Davis is focused on righting the ship.
“If we can’t keep the ball and make first downs, which gives our defense to rest a bit, we have zero chance to beat good football teams and that’s what FAU is, a good football team,” said Davis.