For the few hundred who showed up at FIU Stadium for the lunchtime football game against Rice, the Panthers served a sandwich performance — a meaty middle, too thin compared to the soggy, white-bread-bland start and finish.
That middle only injected drama into the eventual 31-17 loss to Rice after FIU fell behind 17-0 in the first quarter.
FIU dropped to 3-6 overall, 2-3 in Conference USA. Rice is now 5-3, 3-1 in the league.
FIU closed within 24-14 by halftime and 24-17 in the third quarter before a bad punt into the wind gave Rice the ball on the 46.
A pair of Driphus Jackson-to-Jordan Taylor completions goosed a drive that ended with Luke Turner taking a direct snap and plunging 1 yard for a 31-17 lead. Game, especially as FIU’s offense stagnated after failing on a fourth-and-1 at the Panthers’ 47 late in the third quarter.
The Panthers, needing inches, lined up in the shotgun and ran freshman Napoleon Maxwell inside for a loss of 1 yard. In place of injured freshman Alex Gardner, Maxwell, out of St. Petersburg Admiral Farragut Academy, ran for 88 yards on 16 carries.
A fumble by FIU freshman quarterback Alex McGough on the first possession took only one play, a 19-yard run by Jowan Davis, to turn into a 7-0 Rice lead. After a field goal on the second drive, the third Owls drive saw senior Jordan Taylor take a crossing route for a 63-yard touchdown.
The 17-0 lead lasted until FIU fifth-year senior wide receiver Glenn Coleman successfully juggled and caught a 52-yard bomb from McGough. Coleman’s only other catch of the day, a 49-yarder, solidified him as a big-play specialist and set up Maxwell’s 11-yard run that closed the score to 17-14.
But two plays from scrimmage later, Rice led 24-14. A blown coverage allowed Rice’s James Mayden to gallop 69 yards with Jackson’s second touchdown pass.
FIU coach Ron Turner reacted to the game like a vegetarian given a pork po’ boy sandwich, declaring the Panthers hadn’t played as a team and if they continue to play that way, “We won’t come close to winning another game.”
The Panthers had just 30 yards of offense in the second half after rolling up 231 yards in the first half.
“Coming into this week, we knew Alex Gardner was out. Coach told us somebody had to step up,” Maxwell said. “I did what I could out there today. I felt I could do more to help the team.”
“He runs hard, he’s got good speed,” Turner said. “We had some guys, some individuals, do some really good things today. Some individuals. Make sure you note that — some individuals did some really good things today. We didn’t do anything well as a team. And, in this game, you win as a team. They were a team, we were not.”
Before McGough got yanked in the fourth quarter for junior EJ Hilliard — “I couldn’t move the ball in the third quarter or fourth quarter, so I agree,” McGough said — he completed 8 of 19 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown and took four sacks.
Six of McGough’s completions were worth 21 yards and the other two for 101 went to Coleman.
Rice defensive end Zach Patt sacked McGough twice, caused him to fumble twice, then got Hilliard three times to tie an FIU opponent record for sacks (5.0) and tackles for loss (5.0). The five sacks also rank second in Conference USA history.
A Patt-caused fumble by McGough on the first possession took only the one play to turn into a 7-0 Rice lead. McGough admitted he held the ball too long, something Turner said he wanted to see him improve on.
After a field goal on the second drive, the third Owls drive saw Taylor take the crossing route for a 63-yard touchdown. The 17-0 lead lasted until Coleman slowed for a bomb, then successfully juggled, juggled, juggled, juggled, juggled and finally grabbed it for the score.
“As the ball came, I wanted to go over the top of the [defensive back],” Coleman said. “I misjudged it, but I maintained control, made a great play and scored a touchdown.”
“We’d thought going into the game we could hit them on deep plays, and we hit on some,” McGough said. “But we missed — I missed — a couple I want to have back and that probably would’ve changed the outcome.”
Two plays from scrimmage later, Rice led 24-14.
FIU closed to 24-17 at halftime. That held into the fourth quarter as the defenses did on a pair of fourth-and-1 plays. FIU redshirt freshman linebacker Jordan Guest slammed Rice running back Darik Dillard a blink after the handoff on a fourth-and-1 from the FIU 22. The Panthers got to their 48, where Maxwell got stacked up on fourth-and-1.
Rice turned that field position into a missed 42-yard field-goal attempt. So the game remained available to both teams until Brian Nordstrom sacked McGough for a 14-yard loss to the FIU 14 and Jose Laphitzondo’s punt into the wind went only 32 yards.
Jackson found a sliding Luke Turner for 14 yards to convert a third-and-2 on the FIU 38, then Taylor working on freshman Shemarke Spence for 21 yards to the FIU 3. Two plays later, Turner took a direct snap and plunged the final yard for a 31-17 lead.