The longest field goal in FIU history and the longest drive in FIU history put the Panthers in position to overcome the long odds of upsetting 27-point favorite East Carolina Saturday night at FIU Stadium.
Then, East Carolina ended a long drive with a long con job of a touchdown pass and sent FIU skidding toward a 34-13 loss.
The announced attendance for Saturday night’s game was 16,961, although this crowd might have crested 2,000 at some point in the evening as students stayed for various fourth quarter giveaways.
“There’s no such thing as moral victories, I don’t believe,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “But I am proud of the effort these guys gave. I told the team I’m excited where we’re going with this team and this program. If we continue to believe and continue to fight, we’ll get there.”
Replacing quarterback Jake Medlock with sophomore E.J. Hilliard worked to a large extent. The Panthers gained 267 yards of offense and held the ball for 40:37 (another school record), shortening the game against East Carolina’s offense that has blown past 100 plays and 50 points in some games this season.
Hilliard completed 21 of 33 passes for 194 yards, half those yards and almost half those completions, 97 and 10, to freshman tight end Jonnu Smith. Hilliard threw an end zone interception on a third-quarter bomb on first down from the East Carolina 42.
“I believe it was an average game,” Hilliard said in assessing his own performance. “Everybody played well. I take the blame for what went wrong. Sometimes, I got a little greedy.”
That interception occurred with FIU down 21-13, which was the score in the fourth quarter when East Carolina marched to the FIU 35. What began looking like a sweep to the left, a third consecutive run by Pirates running back Vintavious Cooper, then looked like a reverse right to wide receiver Justin Hardy. Just before Hardy got to the edge, he launched a perfect throw to wide open wide receiver Isaiah Jones at the goal line.
The touchdown put East Carolina up 28-13 with 8:07 left. The last touchdown, a Cooper 2-yard run, came after Hilliard got sacked at the FIU 9 on fourth down with 2:02 left.
FIU held East Carolina to 373 yards of offense, 73 yards below the Pirates average, by clamping down in the short zones after East Carolina drove to a 21-3 lead 3:41 into the second quarter as if playing against blocking sleds. Hardy took an inside screen 44 yards to a touchdown on the Pirates’ first possession and DaQuan Barnes scored from 26 yards on almost the same play.
FIU (1-7, 1-3 in Conference USA) took over the tempo of the game after being down 21-3 in the second quarter. The Panthers took 9:20 off the clock in driving 75 yards to a 1-yard Lamarq Caldwell touchdown run on their last possession of the first half, then took 6:06 to drive to a 31-yard Austin Taylor field goal after taking the second half kickoff.
In the first quarter, Taylor’s 52-yard field goal tied the FIU record set by Adam Moss against McNeese State in 2004. He followed that with his first touchback of the season.
FIU got no points from a second quarter drive to the East Carolina 20-yard line. A third-and-1 run to an overloaded right side by Caldwell got stuffed. FIU came back with the same formation, but ran a play action pass that saw Hilliard get chased to the sideline on the short side of the field. He ran out of field before throwing the ball.