Panthers unable to finish upset of Middle Tennessee State

Written by Manuel DeLeon
Miami, FL – Rain was in the forecast for Saturdays matchup between Conference USA foes FIU (3-6,3-2) and Middle Tennessee (6-2,3-1), but mother nature wasn’t the only one making it rain, as Middle Tennessee poured on the points early handing FIU its 2nd loss in a row, 42-35. Redshirt Sophomore Qb Brent Stockstill and Freshman Wr Ty Lee looked to be in sync from the very first snap. The Blue Raiders took a commanding 14-0 lead four minutes into the game as Stockstill found Lee for two quick strikes. After two 3 and outs by the Panther offense, the Blue Raiders took advantage of the great field position, and marched down the field in four plays capping a 60-yard drive with a beastly 9-yard touchdown run by Redshirt Senior RB I’Tavius Mathers putting MTSU up 21-0. The Panthers and Junior QB Alex McGough wouldn’t go away, as McGough found Senior Tight end Jonnu Smith streaking down the middle of the field for a 27-yard touchdown. The quarter ended when McGough hit Junior WR Thomas Owens in the front of the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown.

Head coach Ron Cooper kept his team composed in the second quarter that saw the FIU defense tighten up and make the necessary adjustments, holding the MTSU offense to only 67 total yards in the quarter. Wr Ty Lee was held in check during the 2nd period, after exploding for 84 yards receiving and two touchdowns in the 1st. Defensive tackle Sophomore Jermaine Sheriff got to the quarterback early in the second, making it hard for the MTSU offensive line. Linebacker Anthony Wint being his usual self, distributed the Blue Raider rushing attack notching 6 solo tackles in the second quarter. MTSU headed into the locker room leading at the half 28-21.

The second half saw this game turn from shootout to defensive slugfest, as both teams were held scoreless in the third quarter. After a 21 point first quarter, MTSU saw its offensive production drop drastically, gaining only 43 total yards in the third. Defense stepped up huge for the Panthers after falling behind early. Interim Head Coach Ron Cooper spoke on the adjustment made during the game. “We wanted to play a little looser, when you spread out with four receivers, they spread the field and try to get their athletes down the field, with protection. Brent Stockstill is right on target, he’s an on target quarterback”. The defense got a huge boost from their linebacker adjustments to combat the quick passing game. “You have to play a little bit softer with your inside linebackers, which is hard, you take your bigger bodies and they have to sink back a little more”

The elements had a hand in changing the way this game was played. We saw both teams sling the ball around to their play makers early, when conditions were suitable. Having a steady rain within the stadium made both teams turned to their running game trying to control the clock. MTSU rushed for a total for 169 yards, with RB I’Tavius Mathers gaining the lions share with 149 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. FIU, as a team out rushed MTSU, gaining 203 yards and scoring two touchdowns on the ground. Workhorse running back Alex Gardner finished the night with 149 total yards from scrimmage.

For the second straight week, FIU has saw its offense put up huge numbers behind the arm of McGough, who passed for 307 yards and 3 touchdowns on 27 completions. The recipients of those touchdown passes were, senior TE Jonnu Smith and junior WR Thomas Owens, who ended with 75 and 93 yards receiving respectively. Coming into Saturday’s game both Smith and Owens are top ten in every major receiving category in FIU history. After this game they are number 3 and number 4 in career receiving touchdowns, Smith has 16 and Owens has 13.

After starting 3-0 in conference play, the Panthers have fallen to 3-2 after running into 2 great offenses in back to back weeks. FIU battled all night and never gave up, but ended up shooting itself in the foot again after an errant McGough pass ended any chances of a comeback, throwing a pick six to linebacker DJ Sanders in the waning moments of the game making the final score 42-35. The Panther are looking for way to close out games and get over the hump, leading coach Cooper to say” We just have to continue to get better, and stay focused.”

The road over the hump get no easier as FIU (3-6,3-2) travels to face arguably the best team in the Conference, Western Kentucky (6-3,4-1), kickoff is next Saturday at 5:30pm.

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