The Butch Davis era at FIU began with a 44-point loss at UCF that left Panthers’ fans wondering how long would it take before a consistent winning team could be shaped. 17 wins in the first two seasons answered those questions — providing the program with three consecutive bowl appearances for the first time. However, 18 losses in the final 19 games of Davis’ tenure leave the FIU (1-11, 0-8) program with memories of what was — and just how far away they are from that feeling.
His finale at the helm of the Panthers ended with a 37-17 loss to Southern Miss (3-9. 2-6 C-USA). Following the game, the emotions were overflowing from several FIU assistants including both Davis’, Bryn Renner and others along with veterans Davon Strickland and Max Bortenschlager as they departed the field, knowing that this would be the last time that many of them would be together.
“It has been a strange, very disappointing season for these kids,” said Davis as he fought back tears. “I don’t know of a football team that’s gone through what we’ve gone through in the last 24 months from kids getting shot to Aubrey Hill passing away to today missing the amount of players we were and trying to field a team.”
In total, 33 players from the official FIU roster were unavailable and the Panthers traveled 15 walk-on players. While they managed to put up a fight for three quarters, Will Hall’s Golden Eagles pulled away in the fourth quarter, led by their “superback” Frank Gore Jr. The sophomore running back, who’s had to take the majority of the quarterback reps over the previous three weeks due to a litany of injuries to Southern Miss signal-callers accounted for 149 total yards and four touchdowns in the victory.
As has been the case throughout the season, FIU put themselves in an early hole. After senior wideout Bryce Singleton hauled in a first-down reception, he tried to fight through tacklers and was stripped at the Southern Miss eight-yard line. Hall’s club would embark on a nine-play, 92-yard drive that ended with Dajon Richard finding the endzone on a 29-yard jaunt. Richard finished the day as the game’s leading rusher, carrying 16 times for 107 yards and the score.
FIU quarterback Max Bortenschlager would be picked off on the Panthers’ next offensive play by Southern Miss Jay Stanley, who returned the pick to the FIU 2. One play later, Gore found wideout Jason Brownlee for a 34-yard score. Brownlee caught five passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns. The next Golden Eagle offensive drive would go one play as Gore Jr. punched it in from two yards out to put the home team ahead 21-0.
The Panthers’ offense found life — and broke several records on the next drive. Bortenschlager found a streaking Tyrese Chambers down the FIU sideline for a 91-yard TD to put FIU on the board. The pass broke Alex McGough’s single-season passing record and Chambers broke T.Y. Hilton’s record for receiving yards in a season and Jonnu Smith’s record for receiving touchdowns in a season.
“It’s funny, we were supposed to have motion on that play and it didn’t get signaled in, so we almost called a timeout, but it ended up working for us,” said Bortenschlager. “Tyrese ran an awesome double-move and whenever he gets that open, it’s just a matter of trying not to miss him.”
Chambers finished his afternoon as the game’s leading receiver, totaling five catches for 155 yards and the record-breaking score.
“I just started crying when they told me I had it on the sidelines, especially in the midst of all the stuff this year,” said Chambers. “I’m just thankful that God allowed me to shine through everything and he put me in this point, I’m just grateful.”
A third-year sophomore, Chambers is eligible for the NFL Draft — or could pursue other opportunities via the transfer portal. However, he stated that he wants to remain a Panther.
“A lot of people have been asking me that, some guys were asking me as soon as the game was over,” said Chambers. “I could easily enter the portal and get Power Five offers, but me and my family think it’s best for me to be here, I want to have some conversations with people in power and let them know that we have to do a better job of being supported as a team, but this is a great school and I love it here.”
Bortenschlager finished the game 13-of-24 for 231 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Following the contest, the Maryland grad transfer confirmed that Saturday’s contest will be his last collegiate game.
“This is it for me, Yeah, I think with the injuries from Maryland, I have an extra medical redshirt year, but six years is a lot and I’ve enjoyed every second of it despite the ups and downs and I’m grateful that I had an opportunity at FIU.”
Lexington Joseph ended the first-half scoring with an eight-yard TD run. The sophomore had a career-high 105 yards on the day, as the FIU run game totaled 160 yards behind Joseph and Eric Wilson Jr., who also notched a career-high with 56 yards.
After both teams traded field goals in the third quarter, Southern Miss pulled away again via the superback as Gore Jr. led the Golden Eagles on a 12-play, 75-yard drive that ended with him calling his own number from five yards out. The final score came via Gore Jr. finding Brownlee for a 34-yard touchdown.
Following the game, Hall laughed off questions of his running back being in the quarterback competition next season.
“No, no, he’s not in the mix, he’ll play some quarterback, but we have a young man named Ty Keyes who’s really good at quarterback and we’ve got the number one quarterback recruit in the state of Mississippi coming in, plus we may add a transfer,” said Hall.
While Southern Miss heads into their offseason on a high note, the Panthers are facing glaring realities as the program begins its rebuild. The three bowl wins opened the Davis era, but the program hasn’t beaten an FBS opponent in 735 days, hasn’t won on the road in 1,106 days and is most certainly facing an extensive roster turnover.