Asher O’Hara made his FBS debut November 10th, 2018 — throwing an interception in the south endzone of Riccardo Silva Stadium that sealed a 24-21 win for FIU. Three days shy of two years to the day, MTSU’s signal-caller drove his team on an eight-play, 59-yard drive heading towards the north endzone with the game on the line. This time, the drive ended with a 12-yard strike to Jarrin Pierce — giving the underdog Blue Raiders (1-0, 1-2 C-USA) their first victory of the season by a final score of 31-28 over FIU (0-2, 0-1 C-USA).
“We just had heart. That’s all it was,” O’Hara said. “I saw the safety roll to the other side of the field, so it was a really easy decision and throw for me. I just put my decision in Jarrin and of course knew he was going to come down with it. He’s a playmaker.”
Arguably the biggest factor for the Panthers’ undoing — a revolving door at quarterback that produced a grand total of 58 yards through the air — the lowest since Davis’ four seasons at the helm of FIU. Redshirt junior Kaylan Wiggins took the bulk of the snaps, including the entire second half in the loss, despite going 5-of-15 passing for thirty-seven yards and one interception. Davis revealed the reasoning for his QB rotation postgame.
“I went with Kaylan because the other two didn’t practice,” said Davis. “Stone Norton didn’t get a chance to practice and quite frankly, we had 17 false-positive tests, Kaylan took the majority of the reps during the week - so that’s why he played.”
Arguably the most disappointing fact is the defense more than performed well enough to win, despite the COVID-obstacles thrown at FIU. Defensive coordinator Jeff Copp’s unit held MTSU to 136 yards rushing on 36 carries — a far cry from last year’s 471 yards allowed to the Blue Raiders in the 50-17 defeat.
“I was really proud of the defense — they really played well enough to win and we’re doing things well that we can build on from these games,” said Davis.
Although the FIU offense isn’t running on all cylinders yet, the play of the running backs — a position that Davis is known to stockpile talent at may be enough to keep the offense afloat for the time being.
Shaun Peterson Jr. looked like a running back that has been eagerly waiting for his turn for three seasons in the FIU running back room. The South Florida rushed for 99 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, showcasing the skills that him a highly-coveted recruit.
“It was difficult to wait at first, but I just stayed patient and I didn’t let other people influence me,” said Peterson Jr. “I had a lot of people telling me I’m a linebacker coming out of high school, but I knew I was a running back and it feels good to prove that now.”
The Panthers needed every yard from the rushing attack with the situation at quarterback continuing to be fluid.
Wiggins earned the starting nod and following MTSU’s first pass of the game being intercepted by cornerback Josh Turner, Wiggins ripped off a 17-yard scamper to put the Panthers at the one-yard line. On the next play, Peterson Jr. scored his first career touchdown to open the scoring. After teams traded three-and-outs, O’Hara’s season-long struggles as a passer continued, this time being picked off by Rishard Dames in the FIU red zone, returning the interception out to the Panthers 40-yard-line.
Redshirt freshman Stone Norton would be the second FIU quarterback to appear, taking the ensuing drive. However, the drive would be thwarted by a second-down sack, leading to an three-and-out. MTSU would get on the board with O’Hara leading the Blue Raiders on a 12-play, 80-yard drive that culminated in an O’Hara four-yard TD run to tie the game at seven.
Max Bortenschlager appeared in the second quarter but didn't complete a pass.
O’Hara, a darkhorse candidate for Conference USA’s Offensive Player of the Year entering the season, rebounded from a rough start to finish 23-of-42 for 268 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Middle Tennessee took a 17-14 lead into halftime — their first halftime lead of the season — and continued to pester the favored Panthers throughout the remainder of the contest. FIU looked to have taken momentum and control of the game when Senior D’Vonte Price ripped off a 65-yard TD run in the third quarter to make 28-24 with 11 seconds left in the game’s penultimate quarter.
“I was able to bounce back and use my vision to cut the corner and from there I used my speed to take it the distance,” said Price.
However, FIU’s offense couldn’t muster another scoring drive for the remainder of the contest. Despite Peterson and Price both topping 100-yards on the ground, FIU only managed 328 yards of total offense, while MTSU’s defense forced five sacks of Panther quarterbacks.
On the Blue Raiders’ penultimate drive, O’Hara earned the opportunity to redeem the failure of his debut. He accounted for 47 of 59 yards on the drive that ended with the Pierce touchdown reception. FIU’s final drive made it to the Panthers’ 36-yard-line before Wiggins was intercepted by Carol City native Gregory Grate Jr.
For Davis, the key for his team to stay positive and show resolve.
“The focus for the rest of the season has to be fixing the little things, because we’ve given ourselves a chance to win in both games, now we have to finish,” said Davis.