Ever since the introduction of Scott Carr as athletic director and Mike MacIntyre as head coach in December on 2021, the entire FIU Athletics department has been squarely focused on the start of “A New Day.”
A home crowd that was easily the most sizable since the 2018 Shula Bowl reflected the work that they’ve put in is paying off immediate dividends. The product on the field in MacIntyre’s debut as the lead Panther showed what most knew but didn’t want to say out loud — the FIU rebuild is undoubtedly a work in progress.
However, in a game that saw FIU come back from a double-digit, fourth quarter deficit, MacIntyre’s club won an overtime thriller — completing the Panthers largest comeback victory since their 2018 road victory over Old Dominion.
Starting quarterback Gunnar Holmberg went 14-of-20 with 103 yards passing and one touchdown pass in just over a half of play before he was knocked out of the game with a concussion on a third-quarter hit by Bryant defensive end Chris Eaton Jr, who was disqualified for targeting.
Sophomore quarterback Grayson James was inserted following the play. His first two drives resulted in zero points as the Panthers entered the fourth quarter down 16-6. James’ third drive saw him take the offense on a 10-play, 69-yard drive that was capped with a six-yard TD toss to senior wideout Tyrese Chambers, who hauled in three receptions on the drive.
Following the game, James spoke about entering the game unexpectedly and the emotions of losing a quarterback competition, but playing in the opening game.
“Anytime you lose a position battle, you’re not feeling the best about it but I just wanted to go in and continue to develop each day,” said James. “It’s a different thing to come off the bench, mentally you have to stay engaged and I think we just had to find our footing on offense and once we did we were able to make plays.”
James would finish the night 16-of-31 passing for 207 yards and four passing touchdowns. Following the game, MacIntyre spoke about the health of his starting quarterback and assessing the position entering the nine days between games.
“I’m proud of the way our guys fought and like I said I felt we have multiple quarterbacks who can come in at any time and play well for us,” said MacIntyre. “Gunnar has a concussion and he’ll have to go through the protocol so we’ll continue to evaluate that, but I have confidence in Grayson if he starts for us.”
Bryant entered the game as two-score underdogs having never beaten an FBS opponent. Led by former Miami-area head coach Chris Merritt and several South Florida natives, the FCS club put up a valiant fight behind 470 yards of total offense — outgaining the Panthers in passing yards and rushing yards.
The Bulldogs’ undoing came at the hand of several untimely miscues.
With an opportunity to take a three-score lead, Bryant running back Ishod Byram while trying to fight to break the goal-line was stripped at the one-yard-line and the Panthers took over. After forcing the backed up Panthers to go three-and-out, Bryant drove inside of FIU territory, making it inside the Panthers’ 25-yard-line but running back-turned-defensive end Shaun Peterson Jr. captured his first collegiate sack, strip-sacking Bulldogs’ quarterback Zevi Eckhaus and FIU recovered.
Following the Mitchell TD, James again drove the Panthers to a touchdown, going on a seven-play, 68-yard drive that was highlighted by redshirt sophomore wideout Kris Mitchell’s first of two touchdown grabs.
The Jacksonville native spoke postgame about how much the two-TD performance meant to him after a career that’s seen him battle several injuries.
“I didn’t expect it honestly, coming in as a two (receiver) and I wasn’t getting that many snaps, but I stayed locked in and got the opportunity to make the best of it,” said Mitchell. “I’ve battled an ankle injury and the concussion and it just felt like things weren’t going right for me, but I had to keep my head up and keep fighting.”
After Eckhaus led Bryant on a scoring drive that ended in him calling his own number from one-yard out to put the visitors ahead with six minutes left, FIU responded.
Running back/kick returner Flex Joseph reeled off his second big return of the evening, setting up the offense near midfield and James found Joseph on the first play of the drive for 11 yards. Three plays later, he connected with Mitchell on a play that saw James use his legs to keep the play alive and fire a strike to an open Mitchell for a 46-yard score.
Mitchell finished the night with three receptions for 80 yards and the two scores.
Eckhaus again responded by driving the Bulldogs to a score. Using his legs to pick up 16 yards on a third-and-five, the reigning NEC Freshman of the Year 5-of-7 for 52 yards passing on the drive that culminated with Byram’s second rushing touchdown of the game — putting Bryant ahead 30-27 with 43 seconds left.
After throwing three straight incompletions, James fired a strike down the middle of the field to receiver Ross Fournet, who was leveled by Bryant safety Chris Yates — resulting in a targeting call that extended the FIU drive. James would fire first down competitions to tight end Josiah Miamen, Tyrese Chambers and Kris Mitchell, setting up Chase Gabriel’s game-tying 29-yard field goal to send the game to overtime.
On the first play of the extra period, Eckhaus found Miami Central product Anthony Frederick for a 25-yard TD pass to give Bryant their final lead of the game.
After two plays that resulted in a loss of a yard, Bryant’s Colin Elliott was called for pass interference, giving FIU a set of downs at the Bulldogs’ 11. On fourth-and-four from the four-yard-line with the game on the line, James went to Chambers to make the game 37-36.
MacIntyre chose to keep his offense on the field after getting a tip from OC David Yost.
“Coach Yost said to me that he has the perfect play and he was right, they had been running the same blitz down in the redzone all night, so we called a play that had mesh patterns and then allows the running back to make a play,” said MacIntyre. “It’s funny, E.J. and some of the other running backs had been struggling with making that catch against air, so my first reaction was to see if he caught it but I’m glad he did.”
The win gives FIU its first win in 364 days and sets the Panthers up for a rematch of their week two opponent from last year in Texas State.
“We’ve got a lot to clean up and we’ll have an extended correction period when we get to it, but I’m really proud of the way the guys fought and we dedicated this game to Luke Knox,” said MacIntyre.