The Panthers did what they needed to do Saturday afternoon at FIU Stadium against Charlotte. And, in one situation, did a little too much.
The seven touchdowns in FIU’s 48-31 win over the first-year FBS program rolled in from every precinct.
Freshman Kenyatta Anderson’s blocked punt touchdown ignited the Panthers. The offense kept it burning by scoring on its first two possessions as well as two touchdowns in seven seconds during the first half’s final minute, set up by special teams. Sophomore safety Niko Gonzalez’s interception return touchdown put the game away.
Offensive team records, defensive team records, opponent records, stadium records, all kinds of records slightly less plentiful than fans for the noon game. To get close to the actual attendance, take the official attendance —14,200 — and remove the first and last digit to get “420.”
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Senior defensive end Michael Wakefield tied the school record for most sacks in a game at four with just under eight minutes left and FIU up 48-24. Two plays later, after Charlotte quarterback Matt Johnson flung a hurried throw, Wakefield blasted Johnson to the ground with a high shot. FIU’s sacks leader got flagged for roughing the passer and tossed for targeting.
“It means he’s out the first half of next week unless we can appeal,” coach Ron Turner said. “They told me the replay was out, so I don’t know what he was trying to find. I don’t think it was blatant. I don’t think it was a malicious hit. I think he was hustling to the ball, trying to make a play. I really didn’t see it. I’ll wait to hold judgement until I can see the tape. They said it was helmet to helmet.”
Next week, FIU (5-5, 3-3 Conference USA) goes to Marshall to play the Thundering Herd on the 45th anniversary of the 1970 plane crash that wiped out the football team. The Panthers finish the regular season at home against C-USA East Division-leading Western Kentucky. A win in either game makes FIU eligible to fill one of C-USA’s seven bowl spots.
Moments before Wakefield’s ejection, sophomore wide receiver Thomas Owens caught a 2-yard slant pass, his eighth touchdown catch of the season, tying Smith’s school record set in 2014. The three touchdown catches by Charlotte’s Austin Duke tied an FIU opponent record done previously three times, most recently by Marshall’s Gator Hoskins in 2013. FIU’s seven sacks fell one short of the record set in the school’s only shutout, 42-0, against Butler in 2002.
In the absence of tight ends Ya’Keem Griner and Jonnu Smith, FIU senior wide receiver Clinton Taylor has had a career year the last three weeks. Saturday’s nine receptions for 126 yards and two touchdowns gives Taylor 21 receptions for 247 yards and three touchdowns in the last three games.
He took a bubble screen 15 yards to give FIU a 14-7 lead and outjumped a Charlotte defensive back for his 24-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Alex McGough (27 of 42, 284 yards, three touchdowns, one interception).
“A couple of our tight ends went down, I felt somebody had to step up,” Taylor said. “We took on the challenge.”
The second Taylor touchdown put FIU up 27-7 after a missed extra point. Only 56 seconds remained in the half. Whatever Charlotte planned to do with that meager time, apparently first on the list wasn’t “field the squibbed kickoff.”
FIU redshirt junior Deonte Wilson ran onto the neglected ball at the Charlotte 9. A shift-cut-wiggle-sprint of 9 yards by sophomore Alex Gardner expanded FIU’s lead to 34-7.
Charlotte still managed to get a field goal before halftime. Conjuring some defensive stops and another Duke touchdown, the 49ers trailed only 34-17 late in the third quarter. A lurking quality cloaked Charlotte as the visitors picked up a first down on their own 46.
But that’s when FIU landed a three-punch combination: senior linebacker Jephete Matilus got a sack for a loss of 6; then tackled Kalif Phillps for no gain; and sophomore safety Niko Gonzalez grabbed an overthrown Brooks Barden pass headed up the left sideline, then weaved across the field to complete a 58-yard touchdown. With 4:11 left in the third quarter, FIU enjoyed a 41-17 bulge.
One, two, three and out.
“It’s something I’m used to,” said Gonzalez, a Hialeah High graduate. “I’d done it in high school. It almost feels natural for me. All I was thinking about was scoring.”