Last year’s Bahamas Bowl victory against Toledo was supposed to be the momentum boost into the 2019 season that would atone for their losses against premier competition.
Thursday night’s 42-14 loss against Tulane wiped away any goodwill that the Panthers may have earned with the bowl win.
“We played poorly in all three phases of the game tonight and that starts with me, we didn’t perform in every facet of the game,” said FIU head coach Butch Davis.
Both teams looked sloppy early on, with penalties thwarting a promising opening drive for the Green Wave.
However, Tulane quarterback Justin McMillan quickly settled in, going 6-6 in the first quarter, including an 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tyrick James to open the scoring.
McMillan, a graduate transfer from LSU used his athletic ability to extend plays throughout the evening, and his dual-threat dynamic kept the Panther defense guessing. The following Tulane drive was helped by a 30-yard punt by FIU’s Tommy Heatherly, which gave the Green Wave a short field.
Eight plays later, sophomore running back Amare Jones found the endzone to cap an eight-play, 59-yard drive that put the home team up 14.
Two things that helped FIU to a program-record nine wins last season were winning the turnover battle and converting third downs. Both of those were an Achilles heel against Tulane.
Panthers quarterback James Morgan threw an interception on the opening drive that led the first Tulane score, then had a bizarre fumble inside of the FIU 35-yard-line that gifted Tulane another seven points when McMillan scored on a 17-yard scamper to make the score 28-7 at halftime.
Despite last season’s success, a glaring deficiency for FIU was their ability to stop the run.
Co-defensive coordinator Jeff Copp along with Butch Davis preached improving fundamentals and technique during the offseason. Whatever the reasoning, it has to be improved for FIU to take the next step as a program.
“We did a terrible job stopping the run. There better be a lot of things that we fix in a hurry because we have a C-USA game next week. I’m anxious to look at the film and see what went wrong in detail,” said Davis.
Tulane rushed for 178 yards and three touchdowns in the first half, with Green Wave running back Darius Bradwell gashing FIU for over seven yards per carry.
The Panther offense opened the second half but didn’t look any more efficient than they did in the opening two quarters, quickly punting the ball back to Tulane after four plays.
McMillan picked where he left off, picking up a third-down conversion with his legs and then two plays later throwing a 42-yard score to receiver Darnell Mooney that put Tulane ahead 35-7.
The Green Wave would finish the evening with 350 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
The second member of Tulane’s two-headed rushing attack got into the action when Corey Dauphine raced untouched 50 yards into the endzone to make it a 35-point Tulane advantage.
One of the biggest concerns for FIU outside of the play on the field was how poorly they responded to being down early, with the team’s dissipated energy level on the field and the sidelines being clearly discernible.
In the end, it was the Justin McMillan show, with Tulane’s signal-caller finishing the night going 14-18 for 199 yards and two touchdowns through the air and added 68 yards with another score on the ground.
For Tulane, they make an emphatic statement that they’re a player in the AAC West.
As for the Panthers, over 300 yards of rushing given up on the ground, an inability to slow down the pass, and question marks on special teams will all have to be addressed as they enter conference play next week against Western Kentucky.
“We have to learn from this. Everything that happened tonight was self-inflicted,” said Davis.