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FIU Panthers fall just short to Middle Tennessee

FIU’s Willis Wright remained prone on Alfonso Field at FIU Stadium, his head, torso and legs on the losing side of the goal line, a forearm and the ball on the winning side. Whether lying emotionally exhausted or in silent quixotic protest of the final call, both would’ve been understandable after Saturday’s multi-climax loss to Middle Tennessee State.

The final call: Wright didn’t get into the end zone after catching a 30-yard pass from Jake Medlock and trying to fight through three Middle defensive backs. So, FIU lost 34-30, after failing to produce the third lead change of the last minute.

“I know I got it over the plane, but you can’t leave it in the referee’s hands,” Wright said quietly.

That’s what FIU did in 141 seconds that could be their 1-6 season in microcosm: a good offense, sparked by the return of quarterback Jake Medlock and the emergence of junior wide receivers Wright and Glenn Coleman, not being good enough to outscore untimely special teams failures and defensive collapse.

In his first game after missing two games with a broken foot, Medlock completed 24 of 38 for 380 yards and two touchdowns. He ran twice early off the read option, then limited his running to scrambling out of the pocket.

Coleman, whom the FIU coaches believe has NFL talent, came into the game with one catch this season and caught five for 115 yards and a touchdown. Wright caught three for 109 yards and a 30-yard touchdown that put FIU ahead 30-27 with 1:00 left.

Let’s start with that last 2:21. Middle led 27-23 on a 24-yard run by senior running back Benny Cunningham, who set FIU opponent records with 36 carries and 230 yards. After holding its first halftime lead of the season, 20-10, FIU’s offense spent most of the second half in Sleep mode.

Then, FIU’s offense rebooted in time for Medlock to hit senior wide receiver Wayne Times for 16 yards on 4th-and-10 from the 20. Two plays later, Medlock stepped out of the pocket to his right and launched a ball down the right sideline that the 6-2 Coleman leaped for an over-the-head grab. Coleman somehow managed to get a foot inbounds — or did so after coming down with a foot out of bounds — as he came down among two Middle defenders for a 32-yard gain. A 1-yard run by junior Kedrick Rhodes and an incompletion deep to Times left third and 8 from the 30.

“Willis came to me earlier and said, ‘The go route’s there. Give me a chance, I’ll go get it,’ ” Medlock said. “I said, ‘If I have a chance to get it to you, I’ll get it to you.’ He made a great catch.”

Medlock threw for Wright, covered by good friend and South Plantation High graduate Khari Burke (“my brother from another mother,” Wright said). Wright sailed, cradled the ball inside the boundary halfway through the end zone and held it through the landing. There was 1:00 left. FIU led 30-27.

The ensuing celebration saw two FIU players leave the bench, drawing a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. That pushed senior kicker Jack Griffin, who missed the first extra point, back to the 20 for the kickoff against one of the best kickoff return teams in the nation that had been harnessed much of the night by touchbacks. Sure enough, kicking into the wind, FIU found itself chasing Reggie Whatley up the sideline on a 43-yard return to the FIU 40.

Now, with1:00 left, Middle quarterback Logan Kilgore (17 of 30 for 267 yards and a touchdown) went after FIU freshman cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon. Redshirt freshman Christian Collis outjumped McKinnon along the left sideline for the ball and a 28-yard gain. Cunningham swept to the FIU 7, but was pounded out of bounds. He left the game and the ensuing 7-yard touchdown for Whatley to score.

Only 36 seconds remained after sophomore Richard Leonard returned the kickoff to the FIU 28. Medlock to Times for 21 yards, then to Rhodes for 13 yards. One more pass to Rhodes gained only 7 yards and FIU used its final timeout with one second on the clock.

Wright ran down the right side with Times, then cut toward an inexplicably open middle. Medlock found him and, for a breath, it seemed Times would just turn right into the end zone. In that breath, three Red Raider defensive backs slammed into Wright. He lunged, twisted and lunged, then lunged again as he went down.

Officials ruled him down inside the 1. Game over.

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