HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- In the aftermath of their first victory of the season and of Ron Turner’s coaching period Saturday, FIU talked about what the 24-23 outlasting of Southern Mississippi could do for the team’s future.
“It’s a big morale boost, just getting this W,” said senior defensive tackle Isame Faciane, whose partial block of Southern Miss’ last play field goal attempt ignited a mass celebration. “We’ve been wanting it for the longest. I feel like it’s going to help us in the long run.”
But, looking forward, Saturday also might have been an emergence of a young quarterback and running back.
Backing up gutsy but battered redshirt junior quarterback Jake Medlock over the last 17 games has turned sophomore E.J. Hilliard into as much a middle reliever than as a backup. Hilliard’s 10th appearance in an FIU game, his sixth in a game Medlock started, became the first of those 10 that ended with a Panthers win.
More factors into winning and losing than quarterback play. Yet while many Panthers felt they could win with Hilliard at the most important position, now, they know they can.
Hilliard came in with FIU down 16-14 and, when FIU got the ball at the Southern Miss 25 after Faciane’s fumble recovery late in the first half, got it into the end zone. His touchdown pass to T.J. Lowder after a pass interference call gave FIU a 21-16 halftime lead. In the second half, he converted a fourth and 2 from the Southern Miss 34 with a 17-yard pass to freshman tight end Jonnu Smith to set up the game-winning field goal.
Whether or not Hilliard starts Saturday’s homecoming game against Alabama-Birmingham depends on Medlock’s condition.
Turner indicated Medlock could’ve suffered injured ribs on his first interception of the day in the first quarter and a concussion on the second quarter safety — his last play of the day. Hilliard started against Louisville after Medlock suffered a concussion against Bethune-Cookman.
“E.J. made some big plays,” Turner said. “Obviously, the first touchdown pass. And that fourth down when he hit that slant to No. 87. That was huge. And then the second and six when we were trying to run the clock out, we had enough confidence in him to call a pass, hit it [to Cory White] for a big first down.”
Before Saturday, FIU ran sophomore running back Lamarq Caldwell 49 times, freshman Alfonso Randolph 26 times and freshman Silas Spearman III 20 times. Randolph missed Saturday’s game with a sprained knee. Caldwell’s first 5 carries gained 17 yards Saturday.
Spearman’s first 6 carries gained 50 yards. He finished with 136 yards on 29 carries.
It was the first 100-yard rushing game by a true freshman since Kedrick Rhodes ran for an even 100 against FAU in 2010 and part of a 160-yard rushing day by a team that came in averaging 48.8 per game. Obviously, it helped that FIU knew Southern Miss’ run defense gave up 211.2 per game before Saturday.
“Right now, I feel relieved,” Silas Spearman III said. “I want to celebrate with my team. We’ve got that first win under our belt. The first win is the hardest. Now, we’re just trying to keep it rolling.”
Now, FIU heads into homecoming with some warm feelings. They’ve been inoculated against the winless flu.