FIU 34, FAU 24 (Late Friday)

Shula Trophy stays in FIU Panthers’ hands

 

dneal@MiamiHerald.com

FIU beat FAU to retain the Shula Trophy in what was likely the last game to be played in the rivalry for a while.

In Saturday’s first hours, FIU senior safety Johnathan Cyprien explained why he seemed to have extra zoom while spending Friday night blasting away at FAU ball carriers in the Panthers’ 34-24 win at FAU Stadium.

“First, I only have two games I can play in college football,” Cyprien said. “Two, it is FAU, it’s a rivalry game and whoever wins gets to keep that trophy. Years from now, when I come back, I can see that trophy.”

“That trophy” is the hardware FIU gets to keep as the winner of what will be the last Shula Bowl until at least 2015, probably longer. FIU’s move from the Sun Belt Conference to Conference USA makes the Owls a nonconference opponent, thus likely ending the annual rivalry for some time.

As the Panthers walked out for the game, they touched the trophy they won last year for the first time (the 2005 win was vacated).

“This team has beaten us a lot. A lot,” said FIU senior defensive lineman Tourek Williams, who had 1.5 of FIU’s four sacks and two tackles for loss. “To get these last two wins, it feels really good. They’re a tough team that brings it to us every year. We put a lot of focus on this game right here.”

Also, perhaps the touching of the trophy changed some of FIU’s fortunes. The biggest swing of the game came on special teams, often the bearer of the big mistake this season. Although kicker Jack Griffin missed his third extra point of the season and had a fourth quarter field goal blocked, the extra point failure came after sophomore Richard Leonard’s school-record 100-yard kickoff return.

FAU had taken a 17-14 lead in the third quarter when Leonard streaked up the right side, breaking Greg Moss’ record of 99 set against Carson-Newman in 2003.

“When I saw the opening, I thought, thank God,” Leonard said. “I’ve got to thank the blockers for opening up for me.”

Leonard’s early season fumbling problems on returns got him removed from returns for a time.

“He just had his troubles early hanging on to the football,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “As a coach, you’re kind of handcuffed. What are you going to do? You know he’s dynamic, but if he puts the ball on the ground, you can’t give him the opportunities you’d like to give him.”

FIU also set a record with minus-12 rushing yards allowed, mostly a product of four sacks for 25 yards in losses. Even without subtracting those yards, FIU allowed only 13 yards rushing, still far under the previous low of 28 allowed to Florida A&M in 2005.

Cristobal said, perhaps half-jokingly, that when FIU recruited right offensive tackle Rupert Bryan, the coaches promised Bryan they would throw him the ball. Technically, Bryan got a lateral Friday night on his 5-yard touchdown run with an overhand throwback to the right after FIU started the play flow to the left.

“It’s a play I never got thrown to me as a player,” said Cristobal, a former offensive lineman. “We used it 10 years ago at Rutgers against Miami.”

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