When it comes to being bowl-eligible, there’s no longer any margin of error left for FIU.
The Panthers were beaten 42-35 by visiting Middle Tennessee on a rainy Saturday night that featured just a few hundred diehard fans in the stands.
With the score tied 35-35 and 1:22 left, Middle Tennessee strong-side linebacker D.J. Sanders made the key play of the game, intercepting an Alex McGough pass and racing 48 yards for a touchdown.
Sanders was playing zone and stepped in front of FIU wide receiver Thomas Owens on a slant pattern. It was the 11th interception of the season for McGough, including several that have resulted in pick-six touchdowns.
“I’m very upset at myself,” McGough said. “It’s disappointing for myself.
“[They had] zone coverage. [I] just read [Sanders]. He made a heck of a play. He stepped in on the inside receiver and then jumped back out. He faked me out.”
Meanwhile, Blue Raiders quarterback Brent Stockstill fired four touchdown passes and passed for 296 yards to help subdue the Panthers (3-6, 3-2 Conference USA).
McGough, despite the key mistake, tied his career high with three TD passes. He also ran for a score and finished 27-of-40 passing for 307 yards.
Middle Tennessee (6-2, 3-1) got off to a 21-0 first-quarter lead and never trailed.
But the Panthers, who were 17-point underdogs, battled back repeatedly, closing the deficit to 21-14 in the first quarter and tying the score twice — at 28-28 on a McGough pass to Owens with 12:45 left in the fourth and at 35-35 on an Anthony Jones 1-yard run with 5:43 left.
Owens caught two touchdown passes on the night and has seven for the season. He needs two more to break the school single-season record he shares with tight end Jonnu Smith.
McGough, who has been coping with an ankle injury, once again showed toughness. He missed part of a third-quarter series after he appeared to have dislocated his nonthrowing wrist.
“I tried to stop myself from falling,” said McGough, who declined to elaborate on his injury.
McGough was temporarily replaced by redshirt freshman Maurice Alexander of Miami’s Booker T. Washington. But after FIU punted at the end of that drive, McGough returned for the next series.
The loss leaves the Panthers needing to win their three remaining games to become bowl-eligible at 6-6. But even that dream might die as soon as next week, when the Panthers visit one of the best teams in the league, Western Kentucky (6-3, 4-1).
After a bye week, the Panthers close the season with their final home game of the year, Nov. 19 against Marshall; and their last road game of the season, Nov. 26 against Old Dominion.
Time is running out for FIU interim coach Ron Cooper to state his case as to why athletic director Pete Garcia should bring him back next season to run the program. Cooper was made the interim coach once Garcia fired Ron Turner amid an 0-4 start.
FIU immediately reeled off three consecutive wins under Cooper but suffered losses the past two weeks once the competition improved against Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee.
On Saturday, the teams combined to score 35 points in a wild first quarter.
Stockstill, just a sophomore, fired two touchdown passes in the first to give him 54 for his career, a new Blue Raiders record. Stockstill set the record in just 22 games. The previous record-holder, Logan Kilgore, needed 39 games.
Not to be outdone, McGough also fired two touchdown passes in the first quarter, exploiting the middle of Middle Tennessee’s defense. McGough hit Smith for a 27-yard TD pass and Owens for a 10-yard scoring throw.
Besides Stockstill, two other Blue Raiders reached milestones on Saturday.
Senior I’Tavius Mathers became the first Blue Raiders running back in 14 years to reach 1,000 yards. He started the night with 940 yards.
And Middle Tennessee sophomore wide receiver Richie James reached 1,000 yards for the season. He entered the night with 62 catches for 905 yards.
In addition, Stockstill extended his streak with at least one touchdown pass to 14 consecutive games.
“It was a heck of a ballgame,” Cooper said. “With eight minutes left in the first quarter, we were down 21-0, but we didn’t flinch at all. I told our guys, ‘I’ve never been prouder of a team.’ We just had one unfortunate play at the end.”