Middle Tennessee State’s offensive line opened holes and held out pass rushers. FIU’s offensive line got held out of the end zone and held a few times too many.
Toss in receivers not holding onto passes just enough times.
That’s how FIU lost 42-34 Saturday afternoon to fall to 3-4, 1-2 in Conference USA, two games behind East Division leaders Marshall and Western Kentucky.
Though down 28-16 at halftime, 35-19 in the third and 42-27 in the fourth, the Panthers kept overtime a possibility until 1:08 remained. That’s what the clock read when leaping sophomore wide receiver Thomas Owens could get only a hand on quarterback Alex McGough’s fourth-and-13 throw.
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Owens caught 10 other passes for 118 yards and a touchdown. McGough completed 29 of 51 for 260 yards, two touchdowns. His interception went off Owens hands and at least seven of his other 21 incompletions could be called drops. Sophomore running back Alex Gardner ran for 93 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries and caught six passes for 20 yards and a touchdown.
The game’s rushing star turned out to be freshman Desmond Anderson, a fourth-stringer two weeks ago. In relief of starter Jeremiah Bryson, a backup himself who got injured on the second drive, Anderson ran for 144 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries.
“In my opinion, it was two very good football teams going at it and we came up a little bit short,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “Last week, we had a team win. This is a team loss. Everyone, coaches, players, in all phases did some really good things.”
FIU’s special teams’ couldn’t be faulted other than Austin Taylor’s missed extra point. Middle outgained FIU 461 yards to 346 primarily because the Blue Raiders’ kickoff returners didn’t repeatedly set them up a few first downs from the red zone as Richard Leonard and Anthony Jones did for the Panthers.
Otherwise? Don’t be fooled by the final score. Despite Middle Tennessee rushing for 200 yards through holes resembling a Soul Train Dance Line; letting redshirt freshman quarterback Brent Stockstill’s bubble screens and shallow crosses to turn into 261 yards passing on just 17 completions; and the nation’s No. 14 red zone defense allowing six touchdowns and six red zone trips, the defense doesn’t bare sole responsibility for this defeat.
FIU’s offense twice settled for field goals from first and goal at or inside the 2-yard line.
“We had a couple of issues on the goal line. Middle Tennessee’s a good team,” FIU center Michael Montero said. “We got stopped a couple of times, but we also punched it in a couple of times [a McGough quarterback sneak and Gardner 2-yard run]. That’s football. A couple of times you do it, a couple of times you don’t.”
In the second quarter, a 30-yard McGough-to-Owens completion to the 2-yard line got wiped out by a holding penalty. Two plays later, a McGough throw glanced off Owens’ hands to Middle’s Michael Minter, his first career interception. Another hold made worthless McGough’s sizzling 12-yard completion to Owens off a scramble on third-and-10 in the third quarter.
Every stop represented a momentous event after the teams combined to score on six consecutive drives in the first half.
The first four possessions set the tone of the game. FIU drove to the Middle 29 before turning the ball over on downs. When Stockstill tried a throw across the field on Middle’s first play, Leonard picked it off and got to the 1-yard line before Stockstill shoved him out of bounds. Two line plunges and a failed fade preceded an Austin Taylor 18-yard field goal.
Middle then moved 80 yards in 15 plays to the first of Anderson’s three touchdowns and a 7-3 lead.
Gardner got FIU into the end zone from Middle’s 2 when he took a pass in the flat and spun off a tackle attempt: 9-7 after the missed extra point. Anderson ran the ball on seven of the last eight plays, scoring from the 1, to put the Blue Raiders back in front, 14-9. Gardner’s 25-yard run through the left side put FIU on the 2 and he punched it in the next play. FIU’s 16-14 lead lasted three more snaps until Kamani Thomas rambled 15 yards to the first of his two touchdowns.