Fourth down, 18 yards to go.
Conference USA games had been particularly brutal to the FIU Panthers this year, but things appeared to be trending upward Wednesday night. FIU never trailed the entire contest, until quarterback Keyone Jenkins whiffed on a pass with under two minutes remaining. Sam Houston pounced on the fumble and claimed a 20-17 advantage with 1:24 to go — on track for its first FBS win.
All the Bearkats needed to secure that long-awaited triumph was prevent one explosive play. That’s exactly what they’ve done all night. At this moment in the final minute, FIU logged just one play spanning 18 yards all game — a 20-yard third quarter run by Kejon Owens. Pending doom seemed to be inevitable, but Jenkins fully redeemed himself. With no open receiver downfield, the quarterback called his own number to complete a difficult scramble. He juked a Sam Houston defender right before the first down marker, bowing out of bounds for a 23-yard gain to inject new life into the Panthers.
“It was amazing,” FIU head coach Mike MacIntyre said. “I pulled him over and said, ‘Hey man, you can do this. We need you to do this. Get yourself going.’ He said, ‘Okay, I got it.’ Then he pulled down to run and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, is he gonna make it?’ Then he faked the guy and got the first down and then made some nice passes and clocked it. It was a nice job by Coach (David) Yost and the whole offensive staff.”
Six plays later, Chase Gabriel drained a 36-yard field goal to extend the game into overtime.
“It was exciting to say the least,” MacIntyre said of the final drive. “At the end there, our quarterback came through in the clutch. On the last drive on 4th and 18 when he ran for it and took us down and we made the great kick by Chase. He makes those kicks. He’s made three of them now since we’ve been here with the game on the line. I’m just proud of how everybody fought.”
In overtime, Jenkins’ heroics took center stage once again. He scored on a Philadelphia Eagles-style “tush push” on a do-or-die 4th and 1 to send the game into double overtime, improving FIU to 4-of-5 on fourth downs for the night. And on the first play of the additional overtime period, he sailed a deep ball toward his top target Kris Mitchell on a go route. Mitchell shed off solo coverage in the end zone to record a 25-yard touchdown — yet again resetting FIU’s longest play of the night while capturing a 33-27 advantage.
“Kris is a great player,” MacIntyre said. “It was a heck of a throw by Keyone. Great protection by our offensive line. It was a special moment.”
When Sam Houston possessed the ball, the Panther defense stepped up tremendously, forcing consecutive incompletions and taking down quarterback Keegan Shoemaker in on consecutive plays to seal the thrilling victory. First up, it was Donovan Manuel who stuffed Shoemaker at the line of scrimmage for no gain. Then on a critical 4th and 15, Shoemaker failed to escape pressure from nose tackle Jack Daly, who registered the game-ending sack to ensue the road team celebration in Huntsville, TX.
Simultaneously, it was another brutal home loss for winless Sam Houston which saw its third loss decided on the final play in a four-week span.
“Sometimes you just forget how to win and we’ve got to get back on a winning track,” Sam Houston head coach K.C. Keeler said. “This is a really close team that practices really hard and has been close to being on top. I think had we gotten some wins early, you start snowballing. But unfortunately it’s gone the other way for us.”
Although the offense delivered in the clutch several times, FIU was set up for success Wednesday night primarily due to its defense. The Panthers gained an early edge thanks to denying Sam Houston from points on each of the Bearkats’ first three trips to FIU territory. Outside linebacker Reggie Peterson led the movement, registering a game-high 10 tackles and concluding one Sam Houston possession with a 61-yard interception return to flip the field.
The defense — which never allowed a play exceeding 28 yards — delivered in critical fashion after the Bearkats’ momentum-swinging fumble recovery with 1:52 remaining, limiting the home team to just a field goal. And finally, the unit dominated double overtime and prevented Sam Houston from picking up a single yard on four plays.
“That was phenomenal with how hard they played,” MacIntyre said of the defense. “They just kept fighting and fighting and fighting. I was really impressed with them. Coach (Jovan) Dewitt and the defensive staff did a great job of making some great calls. Our special teams did a great job all night also.”
On the other sideline, it was a heartbreaker for a winless Sam Houston (0-7, 0-4 CUSA) team whose season can be summarized by excruciatingly close calls. In their only other home game since joining the FBS, the Bearkats saw a similar situation unfold. They watched Jacksonville State glide down the field in under 90 seconds to force overtime in Week 5, and the Gamecocks emerged in overtime fashion. Another gut-wrenching blow was suffered on the road when Sam Houston couldn’t capitalize on three passes from the 3-yard line with a chance to stun unbeaten Liberty. The Bearkats remain one of two winless FBS teams due to these recurring late-game misfortunes.
“I told the guys we’re not ‘snake-bitten.’ I don’t want to hear that ‘snake-bitten’ stuff. We just got to make more plays and we didn’t make enough plays to win,” Keeler said. “We’ve been a little up and down on defense. Offensively, our problem is just the fact that we don’t make those explosive plays and it’s a lot of work to get points.”
In a battle between two teams craving their first conference win of 2023, the battle-tested Panthers landed on top. FIU (4-4, 1-4 CUSA) reverts to .500 on the season, matching its win total from last year — showing signs of improvement in year two of the MacIntyre era. After snapping a three-game skid, FIU looks to leverage this momentum going forward as bowl eligibility for the first time since 2019 remains a possibility.
“It was huge,” MacIntyre said. “I don’t know if you could put a bigger weight on it — unbelievably huge for these young men. We were playing good early and then didn’t play quite as well and lost some heartbreakers. Getting this today should give us a lot of confidence.”