FIU 28, South Alabama 20

FIU Panthers halt South Alabama’s rally

 

After seeing leads evaporate all season, the Panthers almost lost another — but this time they hung on.

dneal@MiamiHerald.com

Once again Saturday, a massive FIU lead, gained over a dominating first half in all phases of the game, began to shrink in the second half. From 21 points to 14 to 11 to 8, closer and closer South Alabama crept like some creature-feature monster.

Just when FIU seemed ready to remake its horror-flick collapses against Troy (16-point lead) and Middle Tennessee State (17-point lead), the FIU defense cut the film and brought home a 28-20 win.

FIU is 2-8 going into a bye week before facing FAU on Nov. 16.

“Man, it’s crazy, it’s almost like a championship, to win another game,” said senior wide receiver Jacob Younger, who caught a 27-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. “We’ve got to keep on rolling and building off of this.”

Following a 303-yard first half, FIU led 28-7. Quarterback Jake Medlock had the touchdown to Younger, a 26-yarder to Willis Wright and scrambled for a 19-yard score. Junior running back Kedrick Rhodes had 132 yards rushing and a touchdown on just 19 carries.

“I didn’t figure we’d have that much success early,” Rhodes said. “I thought we’d have to open them up with the passing game a little bit.”

In the second quarter, senior safety Johnathan Cyprien picked off South Alabama quarterback Ross Metheny at the FIU 19 with the Panthers ahead 14-7. What seemed a footnote at the time became an important highlight after later events.

After the break, Rhodes, still recovering from a pair of sprained ankles, had to be rested. Medlock’s accuracy and the receivers’ ability to get open evaporated. Also, FIU went conservative in the play calling, their only first down pass being a failed flea flicker. FIU picked up two first downs in the second half, a half that began with Corey Besteda catching a 75-yard touchdown bomb, the longest pass in South Alabama’s four-season football history.

An interception by FIU senior linebacker Jordan Hunt in the final seconds provided a doubly appropriate finish — the Panthers defense, which had failed to close before when given offensive support, this time did it by keeping the Jaguars out of the end zone on three of four red-zone trips. And no defensive player kept showing up in important spots as often as Hunt.

He hung onto South Alabama running back Demetre Baker until he created a fumble that sophomore cornerback Richard Leonard recovered at the FIU 38.

“The play where I caused the fumble, I was just doing my assignment, but trying to do more than what I usually do,” Hunt said. “I told my teammates I had to make a play to make up for all the plays I missed.”

That’s a reference to the number of passes Metheny completed down the middle behind the linebackers and in front of the secondary, often to Saxon. Saxon, a 6-4, 235-pound tight end who sometimes lined up in the slot, ended with six catches for 92 yards. It was on a similar dig route that Hunt got his interception.

“They’d been running it on us all night,” Hunt said. “Coaches had told us about it. We hadn’t been disciplined in watching it. We finally got it down. Just stayed deep.”

The South Alabama possession before the fumble, Hunt broke up a third-and-goal pass that ended an FIU defensive stand inside the 5. On second-and-goal from the FIU 4, after a Jaguars timeout, Brynt Lavender caught the ball so close to the goal line that his right shoulder was over, but the ball wasn’t. With the ball inside the 1, Baker jumped offside to push the third down play back to the 6. Confusion on the Jaguars sideline caused them to blow their third and final timeout before Hunt’s third-down breakup.

The Jaguars took the field goal to close to 28-20. The possession after the fumble, on third-and-4 from the FIU 6, South Alabama quarterback Ross Metheny had Wes Saxon alone in the end zone, but Hunt deflected the pass midway there. A missed Jaguars field goal attempt followed.

“Seems like every game we’ve had that we’ve had Jake has come down to the last play or the last drive,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said.

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