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Dreadful start sinks FIU Golden Panthers against UCF

FIU suffered an identity crisis against Central Florida on Saturday. By the time the Panthers remembered who they are and what they’re about, UCF couldn’t be caught, so far were the Knights down the road to a win.

The 33-20 loss that leaves FIU at 1-2 and trying to focus on the way the game ended rather than how it began — down 23-0 after one of the worst halves of offense in the 11-year history of FIU’s program and the worst overall half of the past two seasons.

“In the first half, we didn’t get off the field defensively. They were excellent on third down. They held the ball for 70 percent of the first half,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “In the second half, it was completely different. We started running the ball well. We were using our athletes in better schemes, just getting them the football.”

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Jake Medlock, 1 of 8 for 4 yards in the first half, finished 13 of 28 for 154 yards and came back in the game to finish FIU’s last touchdown drive after sustaining an injury to his non-throwing hand in the fourth quarter. Junior running back Kedrick Rhodes ran for 48 yards on 11 carries before leaving the game with a foot injury, opening the door for senior Darian Mallary to run for 71 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries.

To name a player of the game, you would have to get pretty football esoteric to pick anyone other than UCF redshirt sophomore wide receiver J.J. Worton, a South Dade High graduate. Among his five catches for 96 yards were the pivotal catches on each of UCF’s three first-half touchdown drives and the 10-yard touchdown catch in the second half that rebuilt the Knights’ lead to 30-7.

And that score was more important than it looks. FIU had closed to 23-7 when quarterback Medlock completed a 4-for-4 streak with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Rhodes. Two drives later, UCF faced a second-and-10 from its own 17. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Blake Bortles threw for Carol City High graduate Rannell Hill on a deep post. Hill had a half-step on FIU sophomore Richard Leonard but needed to launch himself into flight to grab the ball.

Hill rolled and skidded with the ball before it rolled free. The back judge hesitantly waved the pass incomplete. Replay overturned the call. Two plays after Hill’s 47-yard catch, UCF ran its version of the Wildcat — Central High graduate Jeff Godfrey took a handoff sweeping right, then the former UCF quarterback threw to Worton in the end zone.

Mallary raced 28 yards to a touchdown just 2:57 later. A 30-14 score going into the final quarter looks very different from 23-14, especially with FIU rediscovering its offense. When FIU scored with 9:16 left, the Panthers had to go for two to try to make it a one-possession game.

“The first half, we really weren’t running, we were trying to discover the pass,” Mallary said. “We came in, we discussed that we were going to run the ball down their throats. It’s our offense. It’s what we’ve got to do.’’

Two first downs, 26 yards of total offense and 4 yards passing added up to zero points and 8:29 of possession. FIU’s defense, meanwhile, couldn’t stop UCF on third down (8 of 11 in the first half), leading to 249 yards of offense allowed in the first 30 minutes.

Hurt by their own foibles, the offense’s brief possessions and the field position provided UCF by Worton’s punt returns, what was supposed to be FIU’s strength ended the half getting pushed around. UCF’s Brynn Harvey might get bumped around more walking to class than he was on his 4-yard touchdown run that gave UCF a 23-0 lead.

“I wouldn’t say worn down,” FIU defensive end Tourek Williams said. “We had a few busts or missed a few assignments and they capitalized on our plays.”

Mallary said, “We’re never out the game. Football’s played for four quarters. We either lay down or we step up and be men. That’s what we said in the locker room.”

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