The task for Florida International to defeat Louisiana Tech for the first time in three attempts seemed nearly improbable.
The Panthers defense was faced with the difficult proposition of trying to contain Bulldogs senior quarterback Ryan Higgins.
Despite the game effort FIU felt short of winning its fourth straight Conference USA game, losing to Louisiana Tech 44-24 at Ocean Bank Field on Saturday.
The loss snapped FIU’s three game winning streak, while falling to 3-5, 3-1 in conference play. Tech improved to 5-3 overall, 3-1 in conference.
Higgins, sliced apart the Panthers defense, passing for 269 yards and two touchdowns
FIU did a good job hanging in there with Tech’s high-powered offense. Panthers quarterback Alex McGough kept his team within striking distance the best he could going 25 of 44 for 281 yards and three touchdowns.
But a costly McGough interception picked off by Xavier Woods led to a 1-yard touchdown pass from Higgins to Kam McKnight for 34-17 Tech lead.
“We couldn’t give them different opportunities,” FIU coach Ron Cooper said. “First half we busted a coverage where they scored before halftime, where should have been able to hold them.
“Then there was the interception where they got the ball at the one and the kickoff for the touchdown. We just couldn’t allow those big plays.”
McGough injured his left ankle on the play and was replaced by Maurice Alexander. He was able to return a few plays later with the ankle heavily taped.
Though small, then came the knock-out punch, a 23-yard field goal by Jonathan Barnes putting the Bulldogs up three touchdowns 37-17 with 10:36 left to play.
As a consolation prize, McGough connected with Thomas Owens on 6-yard scoring pass with 6:14 remaining.
Tech replied when Carlos Henderson returned the ensuing kickoff 92 yards for the touchdown for a 44-24 lead. It was the first kickoff returned for a touchdown since Sept. 21, 2013 against Louisville.
“I’m proud of the team,” Cooper said. “We need to keep fighting. We have another game next week. We need to keep moving on.”
FIU did what they needed to do in keeping Higgins off the field by taking the opening drive 69 yards on 15 plays in 6:29 ending with a Austin Taylor 24-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
With the score tied at 3-3, Higgins engineered a 4-play, 59-yard drive finished with a 6-yard touchdown run by the senior for a 10-3 lead. He set up the scoring play with a 49-yard completion to Trent Taylor.
McKnight increased the Bulldogs lead on their following possession on a 4-yard run for a 17-3 advantage early in the second quarter.
Despite yielding 20 consecutive points, FIU cut into the deficit at 20-10 when McGough completed a 17-yard scoring pass to Jonnu Smith with 0:52 left in the first half.
FIU had little time to enjoy the touchdown as the Bulldogs answered with 17-yard touchdown pass by Higgins to Taylor for a 27-10 lead at the break.
“We started off with some good drives,” Smith said. “We weren’t consistent. I think that’s what kind of set us back.
“Win or lose we need to put every game behind us. We need to get ready for Middle Tennessee starting tomorrow.”
The 27 points allowed in the first half was the third most by the Panthers defense this season.
This and that
▪ FIU senior tight end Jonnu Smith extended his streak of 40 consecutive games with a reception with a 10-yard catch in the second quarter. He entered the game tied for the sixth longest streak in the nation.
▪ Junior quarterback Alex McGough became the Panthers all-time career leader in touchdown passes with 43 in the second quarter, surpassing Josh Padrick (2002-06).