In a season that’s been filled with unforced errors, the Panthers played mistake-free football for the better part of four quarters. However, against a high-powered offense, trading field goals for touchdowns made for a 34-26 loss in the 2019 Camellia Bowl.
FIU (6-7, 3-5 C-USA) ends the season with a loss - and a losing record - in a year that began with hopes of a conference championship.
Now, faced with the graduations of multiple key starters, Butch Davis’ team are left wondering what could have been and face the reality that next season will feature several new faces.
In the immediate aftermath of the loss, he was proud of the resiliency that his team showed, but also noted the inconsistency that plagued the Panthers all season.
“I’m proud of the way our guys kept fighting and we had a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter. However, I will say that the most disappointing thing about this year has been the inconsistency all season long,” said Davis.
While the Panthers’ three-year bowl streak is a noteworthy achievement, for the 18-year-old program to take the next step, Davis noted that changes have to be made for FIU to realize their potential, instead of ending seasons with questions of what could have been.
“There’s got to be a whole hell of a lot of changes and things that we’re going to do significantly different, with a major one being the discipline with which we play,” said Davis.
As far as tonight’s loss to Arkansas State (8-5, 5-3 Sun Belt) goes, the Panthers did an adequate job of keeping the Red Wolves passing attack in check - for the first half - subsequently, it was the Omar Bayless show.
The reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year entered the game as FIU’s number one priority - and Red Wolves’ head coach Blake Anderson wasn’t shy about getting him the football.
“We had to go with our strength and that was our receivers. We were glad they lined up man to man, because we were going to take our chances,” said Anderson.
After a two-minute opening drive by the Panthers that ended in a punt, Bayless saw six passes come his way on Arkansas State’s first drive, hauling in three passes for 27 yards and a four-yard TD strike from quarterback Layne Hatcher to open the scoring.
He ended the first half with only one more catch - a 51-yard over-the-shoulder grab - but was targeted 12 times.
Following both teams trading punts, Arkansas State embarked on a 13-play, 90-yard drive in just over three minutes, ending with Red Wolves’ wideout Kirk Merritt’s nine-yard touchdown reception to put FIU down two-scores.
At the start of the second quarter, Panthers’ quarterback James Morgan found receiver Austin Maloney for a 20-yard gain to give FIU their first chunk play of the game.
The Morgan to Maloney connection that helped the wideout lead Conference USA in yards per catch last season would be a trend for the rest of the contest.
FIU running backs Anthony Jones and Napoleon Maxwell powered the offense down the field and the drive ended in a Maxwell 3-yard touchdown run to make the game 14-7.
For the sixth-year senior, it was his 22nd and final rushing touchdown as a Panther.
The two teams would both see their offenses stall, as they traded field goals throughout the second quarter until FIU’s last drive of the half.
“It’s something that coach talked about, us having to settle for three instead of punching it in and getting seven. Give Jose (Borregales) credit because he gave us points, but it’s something that we fell short on tonight,” said Morgan.
FIU’s senior quarterback would complete two passes on the drive - both to Shemar Thornton - one for 42 yards and the other for 20 - which put FIU in the Arkansas State red zone third time in the half.
Morgan finished the night 22-of-38 for 312 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions. The senior leaves FIU either first or second all-time in multiple passing categories.
Offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky dialed up a running back pass that saw Anthony Jones miss a wide-open Maloney in the end zone. The Panthers called on Jose Borregales to hit his second 25-yard field goal in the opening half to bring FIU within seven points at the half.
The opening drive of the second half saw Arkansas State go 74 yards in under three minutes, ending with Hatcher connecting with tight end Reed Tyler to make it a 27-13 score.
With FIU appearing on the verge of being run out of the building, the team found a spark in the form of one of their leaders ending his Panther career with an ejection.
Following a Jones run, receiver Tony Gaiter IV was ejected after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty during a scrum. What exactly happened - is as mysterious as the play itself.
“As far as an explanation, I can tell you our side of the story and their side, but the one that matters said that he took a swing at a player. It’s like always, the second guy is the one who gets caught,” said Davis.
On the run, Jones appeared to fumble the football, causing the scrum. However, officials would later rule that Jones’ knee was down, which meant that the fight for the ball was for not.
What ensued was FIU scoring 13 unanswered points. Starting with a 19-yard touchdown reception by Maloney on the Panthers’ following drive. In his final game at FIU, Maloney would end the night with a Camellia Bowl record of 10 receptions for 178 yards and the one touchdown.
“I’m really happy for him (Austin), he’s had a solid season and tonight showcased what he can do,” said Morgan.
After the Maloney score, Arkansas State hit a wall offensively with two turnovers, a punt and a turnover on downs. However, FIU couldn’t turn the extra opportunities into touchdowns.
Borregales nailed two long-range kicks from 48 and 52 yards to bring FIU within a point at 27-26. Following the turnover on downs, FIU drove into Arkansas State territory but again had to call on their talented kicker for points.
FIU’s all-time leading scorer, who had already set bowl records for most field goals in a game (4) and the longest field goal with the 52 yarder, came on for a 29-yard kick to give FIU the lead. That kick sailed wide left and the potent Red Wolves’ passing attack would finally find their rhythm again.
Hatcher would find Bayless for back-to-back strikes of 22 and 52 yards, putting Arkansas State in range for a score to put the game away.
They would manage to do just that on a 13-yard reception from Jonathan Adams, giving Anderson’s team a 34-26 lead. Bayless would end the night with nine receptions for 180 yards and take home game MVP honors.
Hatcher also set Camellia Bowl records for passing touchdowns (4) and yards thrown (393).
The Panthers’ last-ditch effort to tie the game ended with a Morgan interception, giving Anderson a win to close out what has been an emotional season for him, following the loss of his wife to breast cancer 11 days before the start of the year.
“The guys wanted it and they prepared well. You could tell just by the energy in the team meetings before we made the trip here that I was going to get the team’s best and I’m proud of them,” said Anderson.
For his team, it’s a fitting end to a season that’s come with disappointments on the field and obvious tragedy off of it.
As for FIU, their 6-7 record caps a season that was touted as one that could be the finest in program history. Instead, they’ll be forced to bear the taste of unfulfilled promise into the offseason.