FIU entered their season-opener against Liberty looking to put last season's disappointing 6-7 record behind them. Without the weight of conference championship expectations, the Panthers pushed favored Liberty to the brink.
Here's my game notebook from Lynchburg's Williams Stadium.
The Stone Norton Experience
The number one question entering the season was which quarterback would replace two-year starter, James Morgan. Maryland transfer Max Bortenschlager brought mine games of starting experience - most of the three signal-callers competing for the role. Redshirt junior Kaylan Wiggins made a name for himself last year as a dual-threat option.
However, the wildcard was redshirt freshman Stone Norton. Highly-touted out of Nashville's Davidson Academy, Norton spent last season as Morgan's understudy. The feeling as fall camp concluded was that while Norton showed flashes of the potential that brought him to Miami, he also had as many moments of inconsistency.
A member of FIU's traveling party quipped pregame, "I hope you're ready for the Stone Norton experience!"
Channeling the Nike advertising campaign from the mid-2000s that allowed fans to ride a rollercoaster simulating a game as former Atlanta Falcons' quarterback Michael Vick turned out to be a more than accurate precursor for Norton's impending debut. After his first drive went for negative 14 yards, Norton engineered multiple touchdown drives and used his legs to keep plays alive to look downfield.
“The plan was always to give each guy two series and see who was moving the ball best and I think we found out some things in the game today,” said Davis. “Stone Norton made a great throw - he got hit late afterwards - but it was a great throw to Bryce Singleton for the TD.”
FIU tied a record for most penalties by a Liberty opponent in program history, equaling the mark set by West Virginia Tech in 2004. The Panthers’ 15 penalties played a major factor in the loss, but Butch Davis noted postgame that he felt the calls were one-sided.
“I was most disappointed in the penalties because we try to hammer that home,” said Davis. “However, I thought it was unbelievably unbalanced and there was a lot of things where I thought they did exactly the same thing we did - but it wasn’t called. We have to learn from it, but we had some points taken off the board because of those calls.”
The most curious of the penalties were two “disconcerting signals” calls against FIU - specifically middle linebacker Tyson Maeva.
Saturday’s officiating crew from the Atlantic Coast Conference called Maeva for mimicking the offensive signals being given by Liberty quarterback Malik Willis.
Pass interference and holding calls at crucial points in the game - including one to negate a two-point conversion that would have tied the game at 36 undid the Panthers in Lynchburg.
One of the changes Davis promised entering the offseason occurred with the special teams unit. Harrison Green returned to FIU after spending two seasons at Division III Johns Hopkins, taking over the special teams after three seasons under James Vollono. FIU had a tremendous day on special teams in Lynchburg, with kick returner Lexington Joseph racking up 255 return yards. Also, Tommy Heatherly dropped two punts inside the 20-yard-line. Davis was pleased with the performance of the unit postgame.
“To be honest with you Eric, this may have been the best performance in the four years I’ve been here that we’ve gotten from the special teams,” said Davis. “The kickoff returns were outstanding, Tommy Heatherly’s punts were great and he made the effort to down the punts as well as Chase Gabriel making his extra points. Their kickoff guy is electric and we kept him in check today.”
- FIU’s 15 penalties tied the most for a Liberty opponent. West Virginia Tech had 15 flags called against them in a 2004 contest at Lynchburg.
- The Panthers allowed five sacks on Saturday - nearly 36% of their 2019 season total of 14.
- Travel was an issue getting into the Lynchburg area. FIU flew out of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport but had an aborted takeoff and landing due to conditions. The team stayed in Roanoke before making the hour bus ride to Lynchburg.
- Several of the contributors on offense were inexperienced players - something that Davis noted postgame. “Flex Joseph had a nice game and Nate Jefferson played extensively, Rivaldo Fairweather - I feel sorry for him right now - but that kid is going to make a ton of big plays for this football program,” said Davis.