Facing a 16-point deficit with just over two minutes left in the first half, a youthful and inexperienced FIU team could have fallen into a black hole that their more veteran counterparts in the two seasons prior managed to find time and time again.
However, Mike MacIntyre’s team managed to claw their way back to tie the game at 30 in regulation — followed by a thrilling touchdown and two-point conversion in the extra period to defeat FCS Bryant 38-37. While there are still plenty of questions to be addressed in the extended layoff between now and next Saturday’s road contest at Texas State, there were several storylines that emerged from week one.
Here’s my game notebook from Thursday night’s four-hour and 18-minute thriller.
The Hidden Side of a Quarterback Competition
As jubilation erupted from the sidelines and spilled over into the Northwest corner of FIU Stadium following E.J. Wilson’s game-winning, two-point conversion reception, I made my usual journey from the field to the FIU press room located inside the Landon Fieldhouse.
The door that we use to access the fieldhouse is located right next to the training and rehabilitation room inside the stadium.
Gathering my thoughts in preparation to face what I imagined would be an elated Mike MacIntyre and backup quarterback Grayson James, the first face I saw after stepping off the field and reaching for the door was starting quarterback Gunnar Holmberg.
The grad transfer from Duke was dressed in street clothes after being knocked out of the game with a concussion and was peering outside the door to hear the celebration, joined by his mother Jennifer.
Holmberg was named the starter on Monday by MacIntyre over a pair of former three-star recruits who Panther fans had been given reason to believe were the future of the program. After Holmberg’s first half in blue and gold that saw him go 14-of-20 passing for 103 yards and just six points, a scattering of calls for Holmberg to be replaced could be heard.
Throughout camp, Holmberg, James and Haden Carlson all spoke about the camaraderie amongst the quarterback room, despite them all competing for the spot where only one will play.
“We all really support each other in this room and I feel those guys are my brothers,” said Carlson during fall camp. “We have a great chemistry and we’re just trying to push each other to get better everyday,” said Holmberg.
While no decision has been made as to who will start at Texas State and MacIntyre said postgame that Holmberg’s health will be evaluated throughout the week, both Holmberg and James’ play will fall under an even greater microscope given Thursday’s game.
James’ 16-of-31 passing for 207 yards and four touchdown passes showed a modicum of the highly-touted player he was coming out of the Dallas area in 2020.
“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. “Obviously, you never want to see your teammate get hurt, but coach (MacIntyre) wanted us to stay ready and I’m just glad I was able to help the team.”
Following the postgame presser, I made my way down the long staircase facing the entrance of the fieldhouse where friends and family typically wait for players. Once I got to the bottom, the last face remaining was Grayson James’ mother, Ashlee — excitedly hugging her son following his media obligations.
Jackie Morgan, mother of former FIU quarterback James Morgan, told me following her son’s success at FIU that the hardest part about being a parent of a quarterback is how badly you want them to succeed — and tough it is to withstand the jeers when things aren’t going well.
“It’s literally the opposite ends of emotions,” said Jackie Morgan. “I get emotional talking about it because they’re such a contrast.”
That contrast showed itself to me in a 55-minute span following the comeback victory.
Kris Mitchell’s Perseverance
After a successful prep career at Jacksonville’s Mandarin High, wide receiver Kris Mitchell signed with FIU as part of the 2019 class, choosing the Panthers over several other offers. He redshirted in 2019 and spent 2020 fighting for playing time amongst a slew of veteran FIU wideouts.
In 2021, he looked to emerge in the receiver rotation for the Panthers, but appeared to almost be lost in the shuffle with the breakout of Tyrese Chambers, Caleb Lynum’s switch to receiver and the addition of Randall St. Felix. Mitchell would see action in 10 games with three starts, logging nine receptions for 158 yards and a score.
Entering his fourth camp with the program, Mitchell was bit by an ankle injury in the spring and a concussion after getting hit on an interception return during fall camp. Those injuries played a factor in him being further down the depth chart heading into Thursday’s game.
At the end of the night, Mitchell hauled in two key touchdown receptions, helping spur the comeback for FIU. Following the game, he spoke about the challenge it’s been to stay locked in while facing the obstacles.
“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.”
Mitchell noted postgame that this season saw him play for his fourth different position coach in as many seasons.
“It’s been a journey, lost my position coach (Aubrey Hill), now on my fourth different position coach (D.J. McCarthy, Andrew Breiner, Jay MacIntyre) nothing can prepare you for this, but I’m just happy to be here in this moment now after a victory,” said Mitchell.