The first Conference USA win in FIU’s era of coach Butch Davis likely wouldn’t have happened had it not been for a four-play goal-line stand.
FIU (2-1, 1-0) defeated host Rice 13-7 late Saturday night after the Panthers defense stood tall on these four plays in the final two minutes:
On first down from the FIU nine-yard line, Panthers safety Niko Gonzalez stuffed a Rice running back for no gain.
On second down, FIU outside linebacker Sage Lewis stopped a running play for a two-yard loss.
On third down, defensive lineman Anthony Johnson negated yet another running play, this one for no gain.
And, on fourth down, Rice quarterback Jackson Tyner — under heavy pressure from the pass rush — threw high and incomplete, virtually clinching the win for FIU.
“That was clearly the best our defense has played in our first three games,” Davis said. “Rice uses so many unbalanced lines, motions and window dressing — our kids had to communicate before every play.”
FIU, which will play host to conference rival Charlotte (0-4, 0-0) on Saturday at 7 p.m., forced Rice to punt six times. And senior defensive back Brad Muhammad — a former walk-on who was put on scholarship last month — came up with the first interception of his career.
Rice converted just 5 of 15 on third down and was held to 2.4 yards per rush (41 carries, 100 yards). FIU defensive linemen Newt Salisbury and Jermaine Sheriff each came up with a sack.
As usual, FIU’s two senior linebackers led in tackles. Middle linebacker Anthony Wint had a game-high 10 stops, including one for a loss, and outside ’backer Treyvon Williams had nine tackles, two for losses.
Special teams also played a big role in FIU’s win, especially redshirt freshman kicker Jose Borregales, who went 2 for 2, converting on field goals of 44 and 37 yards.
In addition, kickoff specialist Sean Young produced touchbacks on two of his three kicks. On his other kick, Rice’s returner was tackled after just a 15-yard run. And Stone Wilson averaged 40.5 yards on four punts, giving up a total of just five return yards.
“I want to brag on our kickers,” Davis said. “Jose is becoming very dependable. Sean and Stone did great jobs, and our kick coverage was the best it’s been all season.”
FIU earned just one touchdown — an eight-yard pass from Alex McGough to tight end Pharoah McKever, a graduate transfer from North Carolina State who got in the end zone for the first time in his Panthers career.
Senior running back Alex Gardner, who ran 17 times for 80 yards, was effective, and McGough moved the chains by completing 17 of 28 passes for 172 yards, with one interception.
If there was one big concern for Davis, it was the five sacks given up by FIU.
“[McGough] got hit a lot,” Davis said. “But his competitiveness was big for us. We should’ve scored more points, but we took some sacks that got us out of field-goal range.”
Davis hopes to clean up the issue by Saturday against a Charlotte team that is coming off a 28-0 home loss to Georgia State on Saturday. Charlotte was 3 of 15 on third downs in that game.
FIU won at Charlotte last year, 27-26, and Davis is counting on Panthers fans showing up for their home opener.
“We’ve won two games in a row, and we’ve got a little bit of a vibe going on,” Davis said. “I’m hoping our fans are anxious to see us play.”