In a contest featuring the two teams projected to finish — and currently sitting in the bottom of Conference USA’s East division, it was clear from the opening kickoff that despite the similar records, these are two teams heading in vastly opposite directions. Old Dominion (3-6, 2-3) outplayed FIU (1-8, 0-5) from the start, sending the Panthers to 1-8 with a 47-24 victory. Three of the six losses for Ricky Rahne’s club had come by one score or less, unlike the 22-point average margin of defeat for FIU in its seven defeats prior.
“There’s things that we do well at times and one of the things I have an appreciation for is they have guts and haven’t quit,” said FIU head coach Butch Davis. “The issues that we have, there’s no fix for, we’re playing 15-18 kids who shouldn’t even be suiting up.”
After the Panthers' first drive ended in a punt, Monarchs’ quarterback Hayden Wolff quickly drove his team 62 yards in five plays, ending in a 20-yard touchdown strike to tight end Zack Kuntz. For Wolff, the contest served as a homecoming for the Venice, Florida native, who made his first career start against the Panthers in November of 2019 at then-Riccardo Silva Stadium. On FIU’s second drive of the game, the familiar culprit of self-inflicted errors reared their head as tight end Rivaldo Fairweather took a tight end screen for a first down — but after review, it was ruled that he fumbled at the conclusion of the play, giving ODU the ball back at the FIU 31-yard line. Three plays later, Old Dominion kicker Nick Rice would connect on a career-long 50-yard field goal to extend the lead to 10.
Panther quarterback Max Bortenschlager has struggled to find consistency with his receivers throughout the season, despite ranking third in C-USA averaging over 276 passing yards per game. It would again be a boom or bust type of performance for the FIU passing game, as they were called upon early to try and cut another first-half deficit. They found the scoreboard when Bortenschlager hit Tyrese Chambers down the left sideline, taking advantage of a fallen ODU defensive back. Chambers’ eight touchdown of the season would go 46 yards, cutting the Monarchs’ lead to three.
Bortenschlager had been sacked 21 times entering the contest, as FIU ranks second-to-last in C-USA in sacks allowed. ODU managed to sack FIU’s starter five times on the evening.
FIU’s inability to stop the run was on full display in the loss, starting with Elijah Davis’ 61-yard TD scamper on a play that saw him run virtually untouched. The redshirt sophomore would finish the day with a career-high 114 yards. The next miscue for the Panthers would help aid ODU’s next offensive drive. On the kickoff following a Chase Gabriel field goal — a drive that saw FIU settle for three after making it to ODU four-yard line — reserve linebacker Chance Coleman was hit with a 15-yard face mask, giving the Monarchs the ball at their 49-yard line. They would ride Wolff’s right arm down the field as he accounted for 40 of the 51 yards on the drive that ended with running back Blake Watson scoring from three yards out to make it 24-10.
He also crossed the 100-yard mark on the day, rushing for 158 yards on 26 carries — his fourth straight 100-yard day.
“The biggest thing is the number of defensive linemen that we’re missing,” said Davis. “Hal Vinson is gone, Tevin Jones is gone, it makes it very difficult when you’re trying to stop the run because the number of bodies isn’t there.”
The Panthers’ run game was effective, but after falling down early, the team was forced to abandon the ground attack. As a whole, the team finished with 107 yards, with D’Vonte Price having 45 yards on 10 carries, before exiting with a lower-body injury shortly before halftime.
“If we truly needed him, we believe he could have played, but we have to take care of him,” said Davis.
The FIU defense would force two turnovers in the second quarter, desperately trying to keep the game in reach. Walk-on quarterback-turned-safety Gio Richardson picked off an errant Wolff pass, recording his first career interception, followed by Jeramy Passmore’s fumble recovery as the defense was backed up on its two-yard line. Postgame, Davis spoke about how many walk-ons are seeing time this year.
“We have over 30 walk-ons on our roster and over half of them are playing,” said Davis. “In a normal season, there’s 85 scholarship guys and we’re down to 54, the number of players missing is that drastic.”
Despite the extra chances, FIU wouldn’t be able to produce any more points and ODU took a 24-10 lead into the half.
The Monarchs’ extended the lead to 30-10 early in the third quarter as Wolff found wideout Darius Savedge down the middle of the field for a 63-yard score. Wolff finished the evening 22-of-42 passing for 283 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Redshirt junior Bryce Singleton would score FIU’s first touchdown of the second half on a 65-yard touchdown pass from Bortenschlager, his first of two on the evening. Singleton finished with a career-high 199 yards on six catches. The 199 yards was the third-highest mark in program history in a game.
Following Rice’s second field goal of the night to put ODU ahead 40-17, Davis inserted true freshman Grayson James at the midway point of the fourth quarter. The appearance was the fifth for James, meaning he’s no longer eligible for the four-game redshirt rule.
“We prepare him every single week like a backup quarterback, in the event he’s called on and college defenses are significantly more complicated than anything he’s seen in high school,” said Davis. “But he’s getting better and he was able to drive the offense down the field and produce a score, which was good for him.”
For Rahne and the Monarchs, the three wins are their most since 2018’s four-win campaign, a clear signal that the first-year head coach has the rebuild in Norfolk trending upward. For FIU, they’ll look towards Middle Tennesee to try and get their first FBS victory in over 700 days.