Roughly 22 hours before Saturday’s kickoff, Mike MacIntyre’s club sat on an airport runway 200 miles away from Apogee Stadium due to storms throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Whether or not that played a factor in the flat performance from FIU (4-5, 2-3) is anybody’s guess. However, North Texas (6-4, 5-1) made the Panthers look like a junior varsity squad in a 52-14 rout of FIU.
“North Texas kicked our butts today, I’m very disappointed in myself, our coaching staff and our players,” said MacIntyre.
The JV line comes from MacIntyre’s weekly presser following the Charlotte game when he noted that at the start of the season, they resembled a “junior varsity team” — but grew into a team actualizing their potential — which is what made the loss more bewildering than the 73-0 rout that Western Kentucky put on the Panthers earlier in the year.
“This is the most disappointed I’ve been since we’ve been here,” said MacIntyre. “We’re better than we were than and we didn’t play like it.”
The first sign of trouble came on the North Texas’ opening drive when junior quarterback Austin Aune used his legs to extend a play and find tight end Jake Roberts for a 70-yard gain on the game’s first play to put the Mean Green at the FIU 7-yard-line. Two plays later, running back Ayo Adeyi capped the drive by punching it through the teeth of the Panthers’ defensive line from two yards out.
Panthers’ quarterback Grayson James made his seventh consecutive start roughly 30 minutes from his hometown of Duncanville, TX, but any shot at a victorious homecoming was lost in the early going.
James delivered a strike into the hands of redshirt sophomore wideout Kris Mitchell — only to see the pass promptly bobbled away as Mitchell looked to turn upfield and gain yardage. FIU’s offense would go three and out — the first of four three-and-outs in the first half for the Panthers.
“It’s really tough, we should be moving the ball better and we can’t do that, just a bad day overall,” said MacIntyre.
James would finish his homecoming 19-of-35 for 130 yards and two interceptions before Haden Carlson finished the game with eight minutes left in the fourth. The offense as whole managed just 12 first downs and 258 yards of total offense.
Syracuse transfer cornerback Adrian Cole picked off an Aune pass that he hung up too long looking for deep for Roderic Burns on the next offensive play, but the miscue was one of the few that the former New York Yankees’ minor-leaguer would make.
After an FIU three-play drive, Aune hit a shovel pass to wideout sophomore wideout Jordan Smart, who promptly turned into Tyreek Hill, eluding several defenders in racing 45 yards to a score.
A holding call on the ensuing kickoff nuked any chances off a Panthers’ offensive drive, forcing the unit to start from their own 8-yard-line and Daton Montiel punted three plays later.
Despite missing starting running back Oscar Adaway III, the depth of Seth Littrell’s backfield showed when Ayo Adeyi ripped off a 33-yard rush to open the drive. The only field goal attempt of the half was good when Ethan Mooney nailed a 29-yard kick to make the lead three scores.
FIU found was able to extend a drive for more than three plays on the next drive, when Tyrese Chambers took a jet sweep for a first down — but FIU’s star wideout was quiet in the first half, totaling 24 yards on three touches. The drive didn’t make it past the FIU 35 as the Mean Green defense forced another punt.
The FIU defense forced a cut on Aune’s throwing hand, resulting in him missing three plays on the next UNT drive, but the veteran quarterback still threw for 57 yards on the 10-play, 75-yard scoring march that ended with Aune connecting with H-back Var’Keyes Gumms for a 10-yard score to give North Texas a 24-0 first quarter lead.
Following two minutes of gameplay and 15 yards of offense, James was stuffed on a quarterback scramble to send Montiel out for another punt. A pass interference call followed by an illegal substitution gave the Mean Green offense assistance that they didn’t need — setting up Aune’s third TD pass of the half — finding Jyaire Shorter streaking behind the FIU secondary for a 57-yard pitch and catch.
“We worked on the chunk plays and we just didn’t execute good enough, I thought we were past that kind of stuff but we’re not,” said MacIntyre.
The next offensive play saw James’ pass tipped at the line and picked off by reserve linebacker Kevin Wood at the FIU 18. Five plays later, Aune got running back Ikaika Ragsdale involved in the scoring action, finding him for a six-yard touchdown score.
MacIntyre’s club found the endzone with eight minutes left in the second period following a Rivaldo Fairweather catch and run for 39 yards and running back E.J. Wilson’s two-yard rushing TD.
Special teams’ captain Reggie Peterson picked off Aune on the ensuing drive, taking it 75 yards — only to fumble in the hands of Cole, who went the final four yards to make the game 38-14.
Any hope of a miraculous FIU comeback was quickly snuffed out by UNT’s quarterback, who extended his lead in Conference USA TD passes when he found Shorter for a 35-yard touchdown pass to cap the scoring for the half. Shorter finished the contest with the aforementioned two touchdown receptions for 92 yards.
The 29-year-old Aune finished the first half with a program-record 384 yards passing in the first half and five touchdown tosses on 18-of-24 passing, en route to 414-yard passing day.
“We were trying to stuff the run, but he had way too much time to throw and we didn’t drop into coverage correctly, which we’ve done before, so we need to get that going in the right direction,” said MacIntyre.
Aune and reserve QB Stone Earle rotated throughout the reminder of the game and Earle added a rushing TD in the fourth that had no effect on the final outcome. The Mean Green finished with over 600 yards of total offense — much of which came in the first half.
Littrell’s club improves to 6-4 and have their sights set on a potential rematch with UTSA in the conference title game. The Panthers head home to Miami and turn their attention to a Shula Bowl rivalry contest against Florida Atlantic — a contest that the Panthers haven’t won since 2016.
“I told the kids that we have to go back home and regroup, show up on Monday and work hard,” said MacIntyre. “We’ve regrouped before and we’ll do it again.”