FIU did what it needed to early against No. 25 Marshall Saturday night.
Keep it close? Psssh — the Panthers put Marshall in arrears for the first time all season. They muscled Marshall in the running game. They avoided turnovers. They couldn’t prevent Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato from his NCAA record but kept him from strafing the FIU secondary.
Properly challenged, the Marshall juggernaut did what it needed to do. The Thundering Herd crushed the Panthers’ rebellion with 45 consecutive points in a 45-13 victory before an announced homecoming crowd of 13,163 at FIU Stadium.
FIU (3-5, 2-2 in Conference USA) will have the next week off before hosting Rice at noon Nov. 1. Marshall (7-0, 3-0) left with its seventh rout this season and 13th straight regular season game with 40 or more points.
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The Panthers might’ve suffered another big loss Saturday. Freshman running back Alex Gardner, scrambling for extra yards at the end of a muscular 19-yard carry, got brought down on his right shoulder. Gardner left the game with 104 yards on 25 carries and his right arm hanging unnaturally long.
FIU coach Ron Turner said they should know the extent of Gardner’s injury Sunday.
FIU freshman quarterback Alex McGough completed 14 of 27 for 176 yards, but his two fourth-quarter interceptions on consecutive passes helped turn 24-7, Marshall, into 38-7. On the first, Marshall defensive tackle Ricardo Williams volleyed a pass to nose tackle Jarquez Samuel, who rumbled 27 yards to the FIU 27. Cato found running back Devon Johnson with a 27-yard touchdown pass the next play.
If Williams jump looked well-timed, Marshall safety Corey Tindal looked positively precognitive in jumping a short route for a 30-yard interception return of McGough’s next pass.
FIU held Cato to 15-of-27 passing for 214 yards and cornerback Richard Leonard picked off a pass, his FIU-record-tying fifth this season. But Cato also threw four touchdown passes. The first, a 1-yarder to Ryan Yurachek, extended his touchdown pass streak to 39 games, giving him the NCAA record alone after a week of sharing it with Russell Wilson.
“It's a blessing, in front of all my family,” said Cato, a Liberty City native. “I saw all my nieces and nephews. My daughter was here. My uncles came from all the way out of town. My grandfather was here. It was a lot of people here. It was a blessing that I could perform in front of all those guys.”
Leonard said, “We were just trying to make them work for everything and not give them anything easy. We just needed to finish on a couple of our plays and it would’ve been a different story.”
Saturday’s best player probably wasn’t Cato, but Johnson, who ran for 117 yards on nine carries and caught three passes for 79 yards and two touchdowns.
Gardner and freshman quarterback Alex McGough did most of the damage on FIU’s 80-yard drive for a 7-0 lead. McGough found sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith over the middle for 24 yards on third-and-13 from the 50. Gardner burst through a hole created by guard Jordan Budwig and tackle Dieugot Joseph for 14 yards on third-and-4 at the 20. Two plays later, McGough’s quarterback sneak put Marshall behind for the first time all season.
The Thundering Herd responded swiftly. Johnson’s 71-yard run got the Herd to the FIU 3-yard line. Two more runs by Johnson and the Cato-to-Yurachel connection tied the game 7-7.
After Marshall’s Richardo Williams kept the game tied by blocking a 38-yard field-goal attempt, Cato got going. He hit Justin Hunt for 39 yards up the right sideline. He scrambled to find Tommy Shuler for 16 yards to the FIU 8. A false start penalty moved Marshall back to the 13, a distance Cato covered by stepping up in the pocket and firing to Angelo Jean-Louis for a touchdown.
FIU ended with 385 yards of offense but lacked plays downfield to wide receivers. Tight ends accounted for 12-of-18 completions.
The 14-7 halftime lead grew to 17-7 when Cato and Johnson applied the death blow. Scrambling and running out of time, Cato found the 243-pound Johnson alone over the middle. Johnson bounced off a tackle, which only seemed to propel him past the FIU secondary for a 46-yard score and a 24-7 lead.