FIU’s much-ballyhooed 30-24 victory over Miami in 2019 was considered improbable for a litany reasons, the largest of which being the fact the Panthers had been a disappointing team for the majority of that season.
Entering Saturday night’s contest against New Mexico State, an FIU victory would have been considered damn near impossible following a 73-0 thrashing just seven days ago.
For the first time in 1,043 days, FIU (2-2, 0-1 Conference USA) defeated an FBS opponent, beating two-score favorites NMSU (1-5) 21-7 to even their record and of most importance — put to bed a winless streak against FBS opponents that’s spanned almost three calendar years and a road-winless streak that dates back to November 17, 2018 — 1,414 days.
“I told these guys that I love them and I thank them for trusting in us as a coaching staff and trusting in each other as players,” said Panthers head coach Mike MacIntyre postgame. “Last week’s loss was a game where these players could have looked at us and decided that they don’t trust what we’re doing or they don’t trust what each other is doing, but they kept the faith and it showed tonight.”
On the game’s opening drive, it looked as if FIU would fall victim to the same script that’s plagued them over the past two weeks.
Quarterback Grayson James earned the start with Gunnar Holmberg still dealing with a shoulder injury and Haden Carlson back in South Florida dealing with a stomach bug that kept multiple Panthers out.
James was sacked on back-to-back plays to nuke any chances of an opening drive score — but the FIU defense under coordinator Jovan Dewitt had easily its best performance of the season — starting on their first drive.
“Jovan did an excellent job with the defense tonight, to hold any FBS team to seven points is incredibly hard and I’m really proud of the way our defense responded,” said MacIntyre.
Defensive back Jamal Potts leveled a hit that broke up a would-be first down conversion for New Mexico State of 3rd-and-long, forcing the first of six Aggie punts.
After taking over at their own 11-yard-line, James led the Panthers on an 11-play, 89-yard drive that saw the sophomore signal-caller use his legs not only to extend plays but gain yardage.
“That was actually in the gameplan for me to use my legs a bit more as a rusher and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get a victory,” said James.
FIU’s quarterback rushed three times for 24 yards on the drive that culminated with a Tyrese Chambers four-yard touchdown reception.
“That’s a play we worked on all week, obviously he’s our guy and we want to get him involved, so when they gave us the right look, I was able to signal it out to him and we got the score,” said James.
The score was Chambers first since the season-opener against Bryant and the first of three touchdown passes for James. FIU’s star wideout finished the night with six catches for 72 yards and the score on the evening.
“The week before was really tough for us as a program,” said Chambers. “I had some opportunities that I should have come down with, but it was enough to get us the win, so I’ll be back in the lab next week trying to get better and help us get another win.”
On the following drive, Jerry Kill’s Aggies found their lone score of the evening in grinding out a 14-play, 75-yard drive over eight minutes that was aided by a third-and-long conversion to wideout Justice Powers and a pass interference call on third-and-8 on the goal-line against Panthers’ defensive back Jamal Potts, who led the team with seven tackles on the evening. NMSU running back Star Thomas would punch it in from four-yards out to tie the game at seven.
The first real sign that Saturday’s game would be different than the 20 previous tries against FBS opponents came on the Panthers next drive.
After starting at their 35-yard-line following a kickoff penalty against NMSU, James hung in the pocket on a third-and-five to find a diving Chambers for a first down — following it up with a 19-yard strike to Chambers down the middle of the field that put FIU inside of Aggie territory. Three plays later, James connected with slot receiver Jalen Bracey on a swing pass that the speedster took down the Aggie sideline 25 yards to put FIU ahead 14-7.
Dewitt’s defense again swarmed New Mexico State starting quarterback Gavin Frakes on the Aggies next drive, pressuring him on second down into a near interception caused by North Carolina transfer Alex Nobles.
Following a NMSU punt, the Panthers had an opportunity to take their largest lead heading into a half in over three calendar years.
Starting at their 31-yard-line, FIU faced a critical third-down at the 35. With the clock running down to zero, MacIntyre raced to get a timeout called to settle his offense.
“The clock was running down so I’m glad we got that timeout in because it really gave us a chance to settle down and not be rushed,” said James. “We got a better playcall in that gave us a chance to execute and it really helped us put the game away.”
FIU’s sophomore quarterback would finish the night an efficient 13-of-19 for 175 yards and the three touchdown tosses.
Following the timeout, James hit receiver Dean Patterson for a first down and two plays later threw a swing pass to running back Lexington Joseph that went 60 yards for a score.
“We work on that play a lot, it’s a staple in our offense and it all starts with trust, trust in the offensive line that they’ll do their job and then from there the rest was just making a play for the team,” said Joseph.
Kill benched Frakes in favor of Diego Pavia in the second half, but neither quarterback was able to engineer another Aggies score. Combined, FIU held NMSU to 13-of-27 passing for 139 yards and the offense as a whole to 221 total yards.
The farthest NMSU would make it inside of FIU territory was the Panthers’ 27-yard-line — having to settle for a Carson Zilmer 47-yard field goal attempt that sailed wide left.
Postgame, MacIntyre noted that the win will be celebrated but the goal is to turn around quickly for the team’s first home game in over a month.
“We’ll get back in Monday and show them their corrections and still pushing them hard, because there’s a lot that we want to get done and we think it will be an exciting homecoming atmosphere,” said MacIntyre.