The Shula Bowl Trophy is not quite in mint condition anymore — the FIU Panthers made sure of that.
Host FIU defeated Florida Atlantic 33-31 on Saturday night and retained the hardware, which goes to the winner of this annual rivalry, at least until they meet again.
When FAU won the game last year, they ripped the FIU helmet off the trophy. In addition, the teams did not shake hands after the game.
On Saturday, FIU got even, despite the best intentions of Panthers interim coach Ron Cooper.
Never miss a local story.
“Coach [Cooper] told us all week that we were going to have sportsmanship,” FIU running back Anthony Jones said. “We’re going to shake hands.
“But when that adrenaline is rushing, we couldn’t do it [shake hands]. It was just payback.”
Jones sheepishly admitted that FIU ripped the FAU helmet off the trophy, which was fitting because the Panthers ripped huge holes in the Owls defense all night.
Alex Gardner was named FIU’s MVP, running 27 times for 119 yards. It was his seventh career 100-yard game and his third of the season.
Jones, who is Gardner’s backup, ran 15 times for a career-high 90 yards and one touchdown.
Even quarterback Alex McGough, restored to the starting lineup after getting benched last week by since-fired head coach Ron Turner, had a career-high 35-yard run for a second-quarter touchdown. He also had a 17-yard TD run in the first quarter.
“We didn’t have a big game plan that I was going to run as much as I did,” said McGough, who ran seven times for 61 yards. “But if I get ‘pull’ read, I’m going to run as fast as I can.
“On my second [TD], I looked and there was no one there, and I thought, ‘I better start moving.’ In the heat of the moment, it was: ‘Run, Forrest, Run.’ ”
The winning points came from Austin Taylor, who kicked a go-ahead, 32-yard field goal with 12:18 left in the fourth quarter.
Taylor was nearly the goat after he had a third-quarter extra point blocked. When FAU led 31-30, that block looked like it might be crucial.
Instead, it was a mere footnote as FIU has now won four of the past six games in the series. FAU still leads the overall series 10-5 on the field (not including vacated wins).
The coaching win went to Cooper, who was promoted from defensive coordinator last week after Turner was dismissed.
FIU is now 1-4 overall and 1-0 in Conference USA. FAU is 1-4 and 0-1.
“The only thing I did different this week is that I put a little more contact in practice,” Cooper said. “I told the team we better have some energy.”
FAU’s MVP for the game was former Coral Gables High running back Greg “Buddy” Howell, who rushed 12 times for 101 yards and a touchdown.
His career-long, 68-yard run put FAU up 7-0 in the first quarter. It was the first of three times that FIU trailed in the game, but the Panthers rallied each time.
Probably the lowest point in the game for FIU was when McGough was victimized for a 30-yard pick-six interception return by FAU linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair.
That gave FAU a 24-14 third-quarter lead.
But instead of benching McGough as had been the case last week, FIU stuck with the guy who has started 27 of the past 28 games.
“I patted McGough on the butt and said, ‘Hey, make it up,’ ” Cooper said. “I didn’t go over there and say anything crazy. The next drive, he took it all the way down the field [for a 3-yard TD run by Jones].
“The best thing about us [Saturday night] was when adversity hit our guys fought back.”