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FIU Panthers denied in season finale

On FIU’s Senior Night, everything revolved around the Panthers freshman quarterback, who authored a miracle that caused FIU hearts to burst from chests with incredulous excitement.

Which only better positioned those hearts for another crushing loss.

Louisiana-Monroe left FIU Stadium heaving sighs of relief after beating FIU in overtime 23-17. With ULM doing kneel downs, FIU recovered a fumble, then tied the score on a 58-yard E.J. Hilliard-to-Willis Wright touchdown bomb with 14 seconds left.

FIU briskly moved to the Monroe 7-yard line in overtime before it reverted to 2012 season form: a bad snap, a sack and a blocked field-goal attempt ended the Panthers’ overtime possession. ULM’s Kolton Browning then hit Brent Leonard with a 15-yard touchdown pass to end the game and FIU’s season at 3-9.

“Weird game, but we downed another one,” FIU senior defensive end Tourek Williams said. “I told the guys to keep their heads up and get better for next year.”

Of FIU’s nine losses, they lost three (Troy, Middle Tennessee, Saturday) on scores in the final minute or overtime; another to Western Kentucky after driving to the opposing 21-yard line down by a touchdown and two-point conversion; and a fifth by a touchdown after losing starting quarterback Jake Medlock to injury.

That was the Louisville game that saw Hilliard’s debut. Hilliard started his third game of the season Saturday in place of Medlock, whose left shoulder got mangled last week in FIU’s win against FAU. And Hilliard played well overall. He completed 22 of 31 passes for 226 yards, most of them quick hitches and screens. In addition to the touchdown to Wright, Hilliard found DeAndre Jasper with a freshman-to-freshman, Northwestern-to-Jackson, 11-yard touchdown that tied the score at 7 with 1:08 left in the first half.

Hilliard got helped by 64 rushing yards from senior running back Darian Mallary, 57 from Kedrick Rhodes and 40 from Jeremiah Harden.

“E.J.’s trying his behind off. [Junior running back] Kedrick tried to go as much as he could,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “You have to find a way to get guys to step up when a player gets up and be at the same level.”

But Hilliard’s two fumbles combined for a 10- or 14-point swing. His first, on FIU’s second possession with the Panthers down 7-0, came after he scrambled to the Monroe 2-yard line. The second, with eight seconds left in the third quarter, got turned into a scoop-and-score by Monroe senior linebacker R.J. Young.

FIU smothered Monroe’s powerhouse offense, limiting it to zero first downs and 6 yards of offense in the third quarter. But FIU ended that quarter down 17-10 because of that play. For the game, Monroe, which came in averaging 461.6 yards and 36.6 points per game, managed only 235 yards and 16 offensive points.

Browning, who put up 756 yards of total offense in 2010 and 2011 in losses to FIU, was held to 218 yards passing (31 of 38) and 2 yards rushing (four sacks).

“They played a short, controlled passing game,” Cristobal said. “I thought we did a good job with eye discipline. I thought we jumped the quick routes well.”

Still, the final 28 seconds seemed a formality preceding handshakes between friends Cristobal and ULM coach Todd Berry. Until, that is, Browning fumbled a kneel-down snap. Senior Joshua Forney recovered for FIU at the Panthers’ 42. After an incompletion on first down, Hilliard heaved the ball deep down the right sideline right into Wright’s dragstrip as he raced beyond the Monroe secondary. That tied the game at 17. But all it did was better fit the season closer into the 2012 FIU football season library.

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