FIU spent the offseason preparing for Thursday. Not just the season premiere at Central Florida, but the kind of game it became — a game that demanded the Panthers to show they’ve grown up in many ways since the end of last season.
And they did.
The most tangible sign of their maturity shined from the scoreboard: 15-14, FIU beating two-touchdown favorite UCF. A block of Matthew Wright’s 47-yard field goal attempt by senior Darrian Dyson with 25 seconds gave FIU a victory in exactly the kind of game the Panthers lost last season.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been more happy for a team in all my life, and that’s a lot of years of coaching,” FIU coach Ron Turner said.
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They worked so hard to get to this point to get that win. They’re warriors. We had guys dropping before the game, we had guys dropping during the game. They didn’t flinch.”
Leading in keeping cool was sophomore quarterback Alex McGough, who had 14 turnovers as a freshman. Thursday, McGough didn’t turn the ball over in completing 29 of 38 passes for 260 yards and running for 12 yards on four carries. Despite being under pressure several times, McGough not only didn’t take sacks, but created some of the biggest plays of the night.
On the drive to the game-winning score, McGough scrambled and found tight end Ya’Keem Griner downfield for a 47-yard gain.
McGough’s favorite target, sophomore wide receiver Thomas Owens, caught 11 passes for 78 yards. McGough blamed himself for Owens not equaling Hilton’s school record of 12 receptions, saying he threw high to Owens on third-and-goal from the 3 on an inside route. The ball got deflected up in the air and Griner alertly settled under it for the touchdown that pushed FIU into the lead 15-14.
Big, physical running games gave FIU trouble in 2014. UCF threw its muscle at FIU. The Panthers pushed back.
As the Panthers squashed the UCF running game to a mere 46 yards on 30 carries — 60 on 28 subtracting the two quarterback sacks – the home side tapped out. Facing third and two after FIU couldn’t be budged in previous short yardage situations in the third quarter, UCF called a quarterback draw.
“I didn’t think we made any movement up front, at all,” UCF coach George O’Leary said. “I think there weren’t any cut back lanes to hit. I do think we got some plays out of it, but not nearly enough. Too many loss of yards plays.”
FIU won without a shower of turnovers for the first time under Turner. The game’s only turnover, a fumble by FIU sophomore Alex Gardner, led to UCF taking a 7-3 lead on a 26-yard drive to Justin Holman’s 9-yard lob to Jordan Akins. Gardner ended the night with 75 yards rushing and 74 receiving.
The Holman-to-Akins connection morphed that 7-3 lead to 14-3 the next possession with a 7-yard completion on third-and-3; a 20-yard completion on the following play to the FIU 36; and a 33-yard touchdown when Akins found the soft middle space behind the Panthers linebackers. Akins ended the night with nine catches for 104 yards. Holman went 23 of 34 for 249 and the two touchdowns.
FIU’s offense took the baton at the start of the second half by moving 82 yards in 12 plays to Gardner’s 7-yard touchdown. The drive featured the first touches for freshman Anthony Jones out of Central High. Off motion out of the H-back position, Jones took a pitch 26 yards. Then, he turned a hitch pass into a 15-yard gain with some lottery ball bobbing.
“I feel like this is a big step for our program,” FIU junior linebacker Treyvon Williams said. “It shows we’re making strides.”