It took almost everything FIU had to take that 24-23 lead on Southern Mississippi into the dying seconds Saturday afternoon at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
It took two quarterbacks, redshirt junior Jake Medlock and sophomore E.J. Hilliard, guiding scoring drives.
It took freshman running back Silas Spearman III, 136 yards and two touchdowns, hustling through holes and carrying tacklers with the desperation of a fifth-year senior.
It took a turnover from a guy in his fifth year at FIU, Derrick Jones Jr.; two turnovers from a guy in his fifth FIU game, junior college transfer Randy Harvey; and another from two four-year seniors, defensive tackles Greg Hickman (the hit) and Isame Faciane (the recovery).
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And it took resiliency after yet another horrible start put them behind early as in their previous four losses. After that, there was the safety that put FIU behind right before halftime while Medlock got knocked out of the game with perhaps another concussion.
What would all that mean if Southern Miss kicker Cory Acosta could hit a 44-yard field goal on what figured to be the final play of the game?
That’s a theoretical question, now, because Faciane from Slidell, La., a 90-minute drive away, had one more big play in his 6-5, 300-pound body. Faciane got a hand on Acosta’s kick, and FIU bounded about, celebrating its first win and first Conference USA win. Southern Miss (0-5, 0-1) slumped off the field, one game further into a 17-game losing streak.
“Me and (redshirt junior defensive end Michael) Wakefield, we have a responsibility to blow up the guard,” Faciane said. “We looked at each other and were like ‘Man, we got to get this. We got to go through there and we got to block this.’ And, I’m like ‘Shoot, I’m going to block it, brah. I’m going to block it.’ He said, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ We got low, put both our hands on him, drove him back. I just jumped up, stuck my hand up and it hit all four of my fingers and fell short.”
Stand near the FIU locker room and you could feel — and hear — the relief after the first win of the season.
FIU, which came into the game ranked last nationally in offense, got 341 yards of offense and 20 first downs. They held the ball for 35:58, 11:36 of that in the fourth quarter. Hilliard completed eight of 13 passes for 93 yards and a touchdown. Medlock was five of 10 for 88 yards and two interceptions.
Southern Miss’ Allan Bridgford was 26 of 45 for 243 yards and three touchdowns, but also two interceptions.
“The thing I was most proud of was we fell behind,” Turner said. “We started out the same old way. We go three-and-out, a crappy punt. They get decent field position and they go down and score. Our guys could’ve said, “Aw, [shoot], here we go again.’ They didn’t. Went down and scored and answered. Then, they scored again. Same thing. Just kept battling. No matter what happened on that last field goal, I would’ve been very, very proud of these guys because of the fight.”
Nowhere did that became more apparent than in the last 2:14 of the first half. From the FIU 13, a snap flew through Medlock’s hands and into the end zone. Medlock chased down the ball and tried to launch a pass to save the points. But he stepped out of the back of the end zone while getting buried beneath half Southern Miss’ defensive line.
Instead of letting Southern Miss expand on the 16-14 lead, Harvey picked off a cross-field pass on the second play from scrimmage after the safety. FIU, now with Hilliard at quarterback, punted, but on the first play, Hickman blasted quarterback Allan Bridgford into a fumble and Faciane recovered at the Southern Miss 25 with 1:05 left.
Two plays later, Hilliard lofted a 17-yard rainbow, similar to the one that appeared over the stadium at halftime, to redshirt sophomore wide receiver T.J. Lowder for the touchdown and a 21-16 halftime lead.
“We’ve bene working on passes like that the whole summer, over the spring,” Hilliard said. “We used to go out at night and work on it. I didn’t really get to see him run the route because I looked the safety off. By the time, I looked back, he was up 2 yards on the corner, so I just tried to get it to him as fast as possible.”