FIU hoped it could start its recovery from its poor start in the national spotlight Thursday night.
Instead costly mistakes by its inexperienced quarterbacks squandered an early lead and doomed the Panthers to a 34-20 loss to visiting Arkansas State at Alfonso Field at FIU Stadium.
FIU (1-5, 0-2 in Sun Belt) dropped its fourth consecutive game and slipped to the bottom of the conference standings at the midway point of the season.
The four-game losing streak is the first for FIU since it opened the 2010 season with four consecutive losses.
That year, the Panthers finished the season winning seven of their final nine games including its first bowl win. A similar turnaround appears difficult for a team still trying to overcome injuries to key players that must now win at least five of its final six just to earn bowl eligibility.
“We’ve played a lot of good teams and we haven’t found a way to overcome adversity so far,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “We’re battling injuries and some mistakes we can be better such as penalties. Obviously, we’ve hit a rough patch.”
The double-digit deficit something FIU has faced in every game was too much for it to overcome.
Arkansas State quarterback Ryan Aplin, the Sun Belt Player of the Year in 2011 who hurt FIU with 164 yards rushing last season, threw for 224 yards on 15 of 23 passes and a touchdown. He also ran for 50 yards.
FIU’s defense, which has yielded plenty of yards to its opponents so far this season, gave up 421 total yards marking the fourth time this season it has allowed over 400 yards.
True freshman E.J. Hilliard started his second game of the season since entering for injured starter Jake Medlock, who broke his foot in the loss to Louisville two weeks ago.
Hilliard went 18 of 27 for 133 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
But inconsistent play led to FIU splitting snaps between Hilliard and redshirt freshman Loranzo Hammonds throughout the second half.
Hammonds, who completed only 1 of 4 passes for 20 yards, was used more as a rushing option out of the backfield. He finished with 32 yards on eight carries.
Both quarterbacks threw a costly interception that allowed Arkansas State to take control of the game.
Hilliard was picked off late in the first half by Sterling Young leading to Arkansas State’s go-ahead score, a 1-yard touchdown run by David Oku. Oku had three rushing touchdowns for the Red Wolves.
An interception by Hammonds in the third quarter to Qushaun Lee led to another score and a 27-10 lead.
Arkansas State (3-3, 1-1) had only two interceptions before Thursday.
“The one turnover right before the half was huge,” Cristobal said. “We created two short fields right there for them and they led to two important scores. Those guys are young and we have to find a way to slow down the game for them and keep it simple.”
Hammonds was 0 for 2 passing with two incomplete passes entering the game.
Hammonds entered the game on the second play of FIU’s opening drive in the third quarter. Hammonds played two more drives entirely and split time on the next couple of drives with Hilliard.
FIU’s defense was doing an effective job against Aplin until early in the second quarter when wide receiver J.D. McKissic took advantage of some aggressiveness by the Panthers secondary.
Safety Johnathan Cyprien rushed up to the line apparently faking a blitz. McKissic crossed toward the middle at that moment and was wide open when Aplin hit him in stride. McKissic raced downfield untouched for a 74-yard touchdown that put the Red Wolves up 7-3 with 11:46 left in the second.
It was Arkansas State’s longest play of the season.
“Our eyes got caught peaking in the backfield and he ran right by us,” Cristobal said.
Kedrick Rhodes missed his second game of the year with a nagging right ankle injury. Cristobal said after the game that Rhodes just wasn’t healthy enough to play Thursday.
Darian Mallary, who had a touchdown in the second half, started but it was Jeremiah Harden that led the team in rushing. Harden finished with 15 carries for 67 yards and caught five passes for 40 yards. Mallary finished with 33 yards on 11 carries.
Punter Josh Brisk also had 33 yards on a fake punt that led to FIU’s lone first-half touchdown when Hilliard found Jacob Younger near the far side of the end zone for the 19-yard touchdown that gave FIU a 10-7 lead. The play was reviewed but the referees determined Younger managed to keep a foot inbounds.