During Mike MacIntyre’s inaugural season as FIU head coach, Panthers’ fans have clamored for victories that can provide hope of what could be a bright future. If the season-opener against Bryant or the FBS loss-streak busting win over New Mexico State weren’t enough — Saturday’s emphatic 34-15 victory over Conference USA foe Charlotte provided a clear sign that MacIntyre’s youthful team are growing up in a hurry.
“This team has been choosing to believe, because belief is a choice,” said MacIntyre. “It’s hard to build things in today’s work because everybody wants things in a hurry, we’re seeing a young team since Western Kentucky start growing up and realizing that they can, I’m really proud of the guys.”
On the game’s second play, Shaun Peterson Jr. sacked, stripped and recovered the fumble of 49ers quarterback Chris Reynolds at Charlotte’s 28-yard-line.
“They left the tight end solo on me, not sure why they did that, but I ended up beating him pretty quickly and getting to the quarterback,” said Peterson Jr.
Four plays later, sophomore quarterback Grayson James score the first of his two rushing touchdowns from 12 yards out to put FIU ahead 7-0.
Charlotte’s second drive of the game was stifled by an FIU run defense that has improved in recent weeks after allowing 295 yards on the ground to UConn two weeks ago.
Linebacker Donovan Manuel and defensive linemen Jeramy Passmore and Will Prendergast stopped Charlotte’s attempts on the ground on first and second downs, forcing a third-and-long that was stopped well short. 49er punter Bailey Rice shanked the punt — giving FIU field position at the Charlotte 29.
James found his second rushing touchdown six plays later when he called his own number again from nine yards out to put FIU ahead two scores.
Will Healy’s club struggled against the FIU pass rush for the duration of the first half, as the Niners’ third drive didn’t make it past midfield with Passmore sacking Reynolds on second down and an ensuing punt.
The Panthers’ next drive saw the returning Tyrese Chambers haul in two receptions for 22 yards to again put the offense in Charlotte territory. Niners defensive end Darion Smith stopped James on a 3rd-and-13 at the Charlotte 46 — but drew a 15-yard personal foul for hauling James down by the facemask — extending the FIU drive. James connected with Kris Mitchell twice following the infraction, setting the offense up inside the red zone where running back Lexington Joseph scored from a yard out to extend the lead.
Mitchell hauled in a career-high eight receptions for 84 yards, including five in the first half.
FIU’s defensive onslaught continued on the next drive as North Carolina transfer Alex Nobles, who grew up two hours away from Jerry Richardson Stadium forced and recovered a fumble of Charlotte right end Jake Clemons to again give the Panthers possession inside of 49er territory.
The Panthers’ defense finished with five sacks of Reynolds, led by Peterson Jr.’s three and the secondary kept the Niners’ big three wideouts locked up for the majority of the contest.
“I think my confidence really grew in the spring and now it’s exciting to be able to make plays for my team during the season,” said Peterson Jr.
Following the turnover, James connected with Mitchell for two completions and Joseph scored a 15-yard touchdown to make it a four-score game.
MacIntyre spoke about the team’s success in finishing drives after having issues over the past three weeks.
“It was game-planned for us to use Grayson’s legs, we had a heavy package for him in the redzone,” said MacIntyre.
James also spoke about the preparation that led to the increased success in the redzone.
“It was definitely big for us to be able to add an extra hat (helmet) in the run game, that’s something I can do and I enjoy being able to use my legs to help the team,” said James.
MacIntyre’s team would take a 27-0 lead into the half as safeties Demetrius Hill and Dorian Hall picked off Reynolds before the intermission.
Charlotte’s dual-threat signal caller was held in check for the duration of the game, finishing the evening with 23-of-38 passing for 244 yards and three interceptions — with the majority of the yardage coming with the game’s outcome decided.
“Andrew Volmar from spring practice through fall camp and to now is probably the most improved player on our defense,” said MacIntyre. “The play he made where he pressed the receiver, ran down the field and picked it off, he couldn’t do that in spring, he’s a really good player,” said MacIntyre.
Volmar finished the night with six tackles, one interception and one pass-breakup.
Charlotte’s last real opportunity to affect the game was thwarted on a fourth-down deflection of a Reynolds pass by defensive end Keegan Davis at the Panthers’ nine-yard line. Guided by a 17-yard pass to Mitchell and a 33-yard toss to Chambers, FIU scored again when Mitchell came down with a five-yard touchdown reception in the corner of the endzone to make it 34-0.
On the day, James went 25-of-33 passing for 302 yards with two passing touchdowns and the aforementioned two rushing scores. The passing yardage total is a career high for the sophomore.
Charlotte added two touchdowns in the game’s final quarter on a Chris Reynolds two-yard rush and running back Shad Byrd’s five-yard reception from backup quarterback James Foster.
MacIntyre spoke about the need to carry over the play to Friday’s contest at home against Louisiana Tech.
“I appreciate the guys staying together and I told them that if we trust in each other each week good things will happen and we’re excited to get back home to hopefully a large crowd,” said MacIntyre.
The victory is FIU’s first road C-USA win since defeating Charlotte in November of 2018.