What looked like a cupcake feast of a home opener for FIU on Saturday night against Akron turned into a marathon emotional bouillabaisse.
It began as an FIU rout, boomeranged into being an Akron rout in the second quarter, then morphed into a fourth-quarter shootout decided in overtime by field goal execution, a fatal failing of the Panthers in last week’s season-opening loss to Duke.
But this week, it was Akron whose field goal team went on the blink while FIU’s ran smoothly in a 41-38 victory.
A bad snap by Akron’s Adam Steiner ruined the timing on the overtime field-goal attempt that Robert Stein pushed wide right from 45 yards. FIU ran seven plays before senior Mitch MacClugage snapped perfectly, junior Zach Schaubhut got the back down and senior Jack Griffin nailed a 29-yarder for the win.
“One thing that sticks out is the heart and fight in the football team,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “I’m really, really proud of the way they keep plugging away, plugging away.”
Griffin also hit a 30-yarder on the last play of regulation after redshirt sophomore Jake Medlock directed a seven-play, 54-yard drive to get Griffin into position.
Medlock actually got FIU to the Akron 2 with 23 seconds left, but a fumbled snap forced Medlock to fall on the ball at the Akron 13.
The teams totaled 852 yards of offense. Akron’s Dalton Williams completed 27 of 54 passes for 313 yards, five touchdowns and one costly interception. Medlock threw for 209 yards and a touchdown on 19-of-30 passing. Senior running back Darian Mallary ran for 60 yards and two touchdowns in relief of junior Kedrick Rhodes.
“First half, I was so anxious to get in,” Mallary said. “Ked was a little banged up so I told him, ‘I got your back.’ ”
Medlock ran for 141 yards on 23 carries, including 73 yards on the game’s first two plays from scrimmage as FIU took a 7-0 lead on a two-play, first-possession drive for the second consecutive week. It was a school single-game rushing record for quarterbacks.
“Longest I’ve ever ran in my entire life,” Medlock joked.
The drive at the end of regulation, which began with 1:53 left on the clock, paralleled the 41-second, four-play, 71-yard drive at the end of the first half. Medlock ended that with a 7-yard lob to towering senior wide receiver Jairus Williams, the first touchdown of Williams’ career.
But between those drives, FIU stalled with four consecutive three-and-outs while Akron senior quarterback Williams fired three of his five touchdown passes to put the Zips up 20-7. The Williams touchdown closed the halftime gap to 20-14.
Late in the third quarter, right when it seemed it would be a good time for FIU to come up with an interception for the 10th consecutive game, defensive end Greg Hickman stepped in front of a dump-off over the middle. Hickman stumbled from the Akron 22 to the 14 before falling.
“Coach called a play that I love,” Hickman said. “I get to drop back and play linebacker like I did in high school. I saw the shallow crossing route. I was looking for the hit but the quarterback threw the ball, and he wasn’t looking for the ball so I decided to get the ball.”
Hickman returned to the game as a fullback on third-and-1 from the Akron 5 as FIU lined up in the I-formation with Medlock under center instead of in the shotgun. Mallary gained nothing on third down, but on fourth down, he rumbled through a big hole on the left side for a touchdown and a 21-20 lead.
With momentum, the FIU defense squashed the Zips on their next possession, even giving Akron another down by accepting a holding penalty that negated an incomplete pass. Richard Leonard, whose punt-return fumble last week was cited by Cristobal as the first momentum turning play of the game, burst through the right side of the coverage for a 49-yard touchdown and a 28-20 lead.
After another stop, Leonard fumbled a punt, leading to a Stein field goal. The 28-23 lead didn’t last through the next Akron possession, with Jawon Chisholm beating linebacker Winston Fraser down the middle for a 21-yard score. A successful two-point conversion later and Akron led 31-28 with 8:25 left.
Mallary burst through the left side for a 32-yard touchdown to put FIU back on top 35-31. But the second 15-yard touchdown catch of the game by Marquelo Suel pushed Akron back up 38-35 and set the stage for Griffin’s final kicks.
“It went back and forth, back and forth,” Cristobal said. “We had one more punch in our system than they did.”