If Panther fans were looking for a good scary movie to indulge in on Halloween eve, they didn’t have to look further than watch the FIU (1-7, 0-4) offensive performance in Huntington on Saturday afternoon. As has been the theme throughout the Panthers’ season, their inability to stay out of third-and-long situations quickly doomed any chance of an upset of favored Marshall (5-3, 3-1) in front of an announced 18,466 that had no issues braving the intermittent rain and chilly temps — in large part due to the play of the Herd.
“The players did a phenomenal job of taking what we’ve done on the practice field and applying it on gameday, it’s probably the best job all year we’ve done of that,” said Marshall Head Coach Charles Huff. “It’s hard to get a shutout in college football, so hats off to Coach (Lance) Guidry.”
FIU gifted the Marshall offense with several short fields in the first half, allowing quarterback Grant Wells to engineer three first-half touchdown drives. The first came following a booming Tommy Heatherly punt that Herd punt returner Talik Keaton took back for a 38-yard gain, giving them excellent field position at the FIU 35-yard line. For the second time in as many weeks, an opposing receiver rolled off of an FIU defender and kept his legs to gain extra yardage. Marshall’s Corey Gammage turned what would have been a short gain into a 15-yard gain that put them inside the red zone. Three plays later, Wells used his legs on third down to score from two yards out to put the home team ahead 10-0.
Entering the game, the Herd’s pass defense had been one of the stingiest in the nation, ranking 11th among FBS teams. Junior cornerback Steven Gilmore leads the group in interceptions and found his third of the season on FIU’s following drive. Gilmore returned the pick inside FIU territory and Marshall wasted no time taking advantage of the short field as reserve running back Sheldon Evans busted off a 41-yard TD run down the right sideline to put Marshall ahead 17-0.
The next FIU drive was nuked by an illegal substitution — starting the Panthers behind the chains before running a play. Heatherly would come on for his fourth punt of the half after a three-and-out. While the drive started at the Marshall 23, Wells quickly moved his team inside Panther territory, finding Shadeed Ahmed for a 34-yard gain. Last season’s C-USA Newcomer of the Year went an efficient 20-of-25 passing for 184 yards and the one rushing touchdown on the evening.
“Grant played his most consistent game of the year, distributing the ball and making really good decisions,” said Huff.
The Panthers’ defense was able to force two third downs on the play, but Herd running back Rasheen Ali picked up both and finished off the drive with a six-yard touchdown run that gave Marshall a three-score lead.
“(Rasheen) Ali and Shel (Sheldon Evans) did a phenomenal job of breaking tackles and getting to the next level and the run game kept us ahead of the sticks,” said Huff. “But the O-Line did a great job up front getting us started.”
In a sequence that arguably sums up the season through eight games for FIU, the offense found its first real success on the final drive of the first half, going on an 11-play, 48-yard drive that was spurred mostly by a pass interference and two Tyrese Chambers receptions. After bleeding the clock to take a timeout and then attempt a field goal from 44 yards, the first attempt was blocked. However, Marshall head coach Charles Huff called a timeout from the sideline before the try. Being gifted a second chance the kicked was blocked for the second time in a row, this time by redshirt senior defensive end TJ Johnson.
Wells and Ali spearheaded the next scoring drive for the Herd, helping bleed almost seven minutes on the clock as Marshall embarked on a 16-play, 80-yard drive, ending with Ali’s conference-leading 15th score of the season from two yards out — extending the lead to 31 points. Ali finished the day with 133 yards on 26 carried and 2 touchdowns.
As a whole, Marshall outgained FIU 456-288 and was 5-for-5 in the red zone. FIU finished the evening 4-of-14 on third down. Following the game, FIU Head Coach Butch Davis declined to speak with the media.
For the Panthers, the defeat ensures a second-consecutive season without a bowl game and a 14th straight loss against FBS competition — a loss that’s made even more glaring given Marshall’s acceptance to the Sun Belt this week — while FIU is left searching for answers on and off the field.