Schnellenberger Field at FAU Stadium long had been empty of the fans who ran out of the stands after Saturday’s Shula Bowl and the Florida Atlantic players they joined for celebratory hollering. The cooldown period passed.
Well, not for FIU sophomore running back Alex Gardner. He remained hot about FIU’s 31-17 loss to Florida Atlantic, a game the Panthers trailed 17-0 in the second quarter and got into in the third quarter only as long as it took the Owls to push them out again.
"As a total team effort, they played better than us. We didn’t come out strong enough to get that win," Gardner said. "We know we needed that win. It was a big win for us. We didn’t come out playing like that.
As to the anger evident in his head movement and his speech pattern, he said, "It’s very frustrating because we feel like this was a very winnable game for us. Next week, we thought we had another winnable game (vs. Charlotte) and that could’ve given us that six (wins) for bowl eligibility. We just didn’t come out like it was a do or die situation."
Their counterparts to the north certainly did. Teams with one win by Halloween play for pride and ruining rivals’ postseason hopes. The loss drops FIU to 4-5 overall, 2-3 in Conference USA. The Owls, whose only previous win came against FBS rookie Charlotte, are 2-6 and 2-3.
"We’re not even worrying about getting six wins right now," FIU coach Ron Turner said. "All we’re worrying about is the next game. To get that win, we’ve got to focus on ourselves. It’s not about who we play. I don’t care who we play. It’s not about who we play, it’s how we play. You get dumb block in the back penalties, and you get holding penalties, you’re not giving yourself a chance to win, I don’t care who you’re playing.
"They were more focused on themselves than we were today. You could see it in pregame warmups."
Or, shortly after the game started, when FAU marched to the FIU 9-yard-line and started piling up their 229 yards rushing. The Owls gave the ball over on downs when freshman running back Trey Rodriguez dropped a fourth-and-2 pass while wide open in the flat, but nobody would be fooled into thinking the Panthers stopped FAU. In fact, FAU wouldn’t punt until the fourth quarter.
Rodriguez got 94 of those rushing yards on 20 carries and 140 all-purpose yards as FAU’s Shula Bowl game MVP. The media could’ve selected the Owls pass rush en masse. Whenever FIU pumped life into themselves with a few first downs, one or two of those seven sacks punctured the Panthers. Defensive ends Trey Hendrickson and Hunter Snyder had 2.5 each.
Rodriguez put FAU up 7-0 with a 5-yard run after the Owls bopped FIU sophomore quarterback Alex McGeough (19 of 27, 196 yards, one touchdown, one interception) into a fumble and recovered at the 32. Backup quarterback Jason Driskel’s 6-yard touchdown run and Greg Joseph’s 25-yard field goal gave the Owls a 17-0 lead.
Gardner, 105 yards rushing and 120 all-purpose yards, got the FIU MVP nod. Behind Gardner, senior wide receiver Clinton Taylor and a 40-yard pass to tight end Akil Dan Fodio, the Panthers moved to the FAU 1. A McGeough quarterback sneak cut the lead to 17-7 at halftime.
When FIU took the second half kickoff, held the ball for 9:15 and came away with an Austin Taylor 47-yard field goal, the sense was the next drive would determine the remaining game’s flow.
That would be FAU flow. The Owls marched 78 yards in 17 plays, taking up 8:04 to Rodriguez’s 1-yard touchdown. There was even a hook-and-lateral, quarterback Jaquez Johnson hitting Jenson Stoshak, who raggedly pitched to sideline tiptoeing Marcus Clark. The play gained 13 yards.
A Jalen Young interception return touchdown and FIU’s Julian Williams got a late garbage time touchdown in the final 12:41. But the second Rodriguez touchdown ended things.
"There’s no mystery in this game," Turner said. "We did not play well enough to win. That means players, coaches, I’m talking about totally, as a team. And they did."