The feature attraction of Saturday night’s season-finale was supposed to be the ode to four seniors taking part in their final appearance at FIU Stadium in a Panther uniform. Instead, the crowd was treated to a furious 20-point second-half comeback at the hands of third-year freshman quarterback Haden Carlson, who threw four touchdown passes in a surprise start in place of Grayson James.
However, Carlson’s third of four interceptions with under three minutes left in the contest was returned 28 yards for the game-winning score by Middle Tennessee (7-5, 4-4) safety Jakobe Thomas to give the Blue Raiders a 33-28 road victory.
James was expected to make his 11th-consecutive start, but Panthers head coach Mike MacIntyre was notified by team doctors at 2 PM that the sophomore wouldn’t be able to play due to a thigh bruise that got worse during the week.
“I found out today at 2 o’clock,” said MacIntyre. “Grayson had a thigh bruise that he had ben practicing with but for some reason it got worse and he just couldn’t push off of it, but Haden gets a lot of reps in practice so we felt comfortable with him.”
Carlson’s first career start got off to an auspicious opening, as he showed flashes of the elusiveness and playmaking ability that led former head coach Butch Davis to say Carlson reminded him of Kansas City Chiefs all-world QB Patrick Mahomes.
With those flashes came two first-half interceptions at the hands of MTSU cornerback Decorian Patterson, that nuked any chances of first-quarter points for FIU. After allowing over 140 points in the last three outings, MacIntyre’s defense responded to the early tests, holding the Blue Raiders to field goals despite the back-to-back interceptions.
“They played really hard and I thought Coach (Jovan) Dewitt did a really good job of mixing up the coverages,” said MacIntyre. “We missed a couple of tackles early, but then we started tackling better in the second half, we had a couple of chances to get a few picks but we competed and improved from a couple of weeks ago.”
Rick Stockstill’s club jumped out to a three-score lead when they scored second quarter touchdowns via Conference USA’s ninth-leading rushing attack. Blue Raiders’ running back Darius Bracy capped a 12-play, 89-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run at the nine-minute mark. Following an FIU three-and-out, MTSU quarterback Chase Cunningham led the offense on a nine-play, 51-yard drive that was capped by Cunningham calling his own number for a 16-yard touchdown.
Cunningham finished the day going 29-of-42 for 279 yards and rushed for 32 yards on ten attempts.
FIU got on the board when Carlson took the Panthers offense 93 yards in one minute and 13 seconds. The third-year quarterback hit Kris Mitchell twice on the drive for 39 yards and finished the drive by finding tight end Rivaldo Fairweather three times for 41 yards including a six-yard TD grab to make the halftime score 20-7.
“We felt like they hadn’t been working on 12 personnel a lot because we run a lot of 11 personnel,” said MacIntyre. “With Tyrese and some of the other guys out, there were some opportunities and we knew that our tight ends were fast and athletic enough to make the plays.”
After forcing an FIU punt, the Blue Raiders extended their lead when Cunningham used his legs to extend plays and find five different receivers on a scoring drive that ended with him scoring his second rushing touchdown from two yards out.
Down 27-7, the Panthers’ rally began when Carlson found Fairweather down the seam for a 75-yard catch and run that saw the 245-pound tight end out run the MTSU secondary to bring FIU within two scores.
After a three-and-out forced by Shaun Peterson Jr.’s sack of Cunningham on third down, Carlson’s deep pass to Kris Mitchell drew a pass interference — then hit tight end Josiah Miamen twice — ending with Miamen’s 21-yard touchdown grab to pull FIU within six.
“We called four verticals with the set with the two tight ends and I kind of saw him a little late,” said Carlson. “We were talking about on the sideline that I almost missed him but he ran a great route and the tight ends are always saying we have to feed them more so we made that happen.”
Both teams traded punts entering the fourth quarter before Carlson engineered an eight-play, 86-yard drive with just over 14-minutes left in the game’s final quarter. After using his legs to pick up a first-down, he connected twice with his former high-school teammate in Dean Patterson for back-to-back grabs — then threw his fourth touchdown pass to Fairweather from three yards out — a catch that saw Fairweather take the ball off of the head of the MTSU defender to give FIU a 28-27 lead.
Postgame, Carlson was emotional when asked about the connection with Patterson.
“That’s my boy, he made so many plays for me tonight,” said Carlson as he choked back tears. “I’m so happy for him, I’m just thankful and happy for him.”
On Middle Tennessee’s penultimate drive of the game, kicker Zeke Rankin came on to attempt a 43-yard kick — one that was pushed back by five yards following a delay of game. However, Jeramy Passmore blocked the attempt to keep the FIU lead.
Two plays later, Carlson threw the interception to Thomas, who returned it 28 yards for the go-ahead score.
“On the passes that got intercepted, I definitely have to be better and should have found a way to do something else for sure,” said Carlson.
FIU had one last chance to go-ahead but he was picked off by Thomas for the second team, sealing the MTSU victory.
On the day, Carlson finished 29-of-52 for 414 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions. The four touchdowns are the most for a Panther in his first start in program-history, breaking David Tabor’s 18-year-old record. Fairweather lead all receivers with eight receptions for 152 yards and three scores.
Postgame, MacIntyre was reflective on the season that ends with several building blocks for the future.
“I told the guys that I love them and I appreciate them and I reiterated that several times, because it’s the truth, we’re building something here,” said MacIntyre.