If this was an audition tape for new FIU coach Butch Davis, the Panthers nailed it.
FIU honored 13 seniors on Saturday’s Senior Night and defeated the visiting Marshall Thundering Herd 31-14.
But for the non-seniors who are hoping to play prime roles under Davis next season, this was their first chance to show what they can do since the former Miami Hurricanes, Cleveland Browns and North Carolina Tar Heels coach was hired Tuesday.
Davis was not at FIU on Saturday — interim coach Ron Cooper has the team for the rest of the season. But Davis will surely see this tape soon if he hasn’t already.
One thing Davis will notice is the running game. FIU junior running back Alex Gardner ran 14 times for 119 yards and one touchdown and set the school record for career yards with 2,217. The previous record of 2,195 was set by Rashod Smith.
Gardner said the record was on his mind.
“Yes it was, but not more than beating Marshall,” he said. “Our school had never beaten Marshall until [Saturday night]. I have a big hatred toward Marshall because they broke my collarbone my freshman year. And last year, they held me to 9 yards.”
After he got the record, Gardner had to duck for cover because of all the support he received from his teammates.
“They just bombarded me,” he said. “I couldn’t even catch my breath. But it’s cool. This record … I set this goal when I was in high school.”
FIU center Michael Montero smiled when asked about Gardner.
“The record is a testament to the offensive line and also how hard he runs,” Montero said. “It’s a great accomplishment.”
Montero and his line mates also opened holes for FIU backup running back Anthony Jones, who rushed 17 times for 121 yards and one touchdown.
FIU’s defense also played well, getting interceptions by safety Niko Gonzalez and cornerback Isaiah Brown, and a fourth-quarter goal-line stand.
Marshall had first-and-goal from the 1 and ran twice — for no gain and a loss of 2 — and threw an incomplete pass in the end zone. On fourth down, a Marshall field-goal attempt was blocked by FIU’s Olin Cushion.
Put it all together, and the Panthers (4-7, 4-3 Conference USA) earned their first win in their brief series against Marshall (3-8, 2-5). FIU is 1-4 in the series.
FIU will close out its season next Saturday at Old Dominion. An FIU win would set a school record for most wins in Conference USA.
The Panthers played without injured starting quarterback Alex McGough.
FIU backup quarterback Maurice Alexander, a redshirt freshman from Booker T. Washington, started his third game of the season and completed 14 of 20 passes for 204 yards. He was intercepted twice.
The Panthers also used their other redshirt freshman backup quarterback, Christian Alexander, who is from Lakeland and is unrelated to Maurice. Christian Alexander completed 4 of 5 passes for 53 yards and one touchdown. He was not intercepted.
McGough missed his second consecutive game because of an injury to his non-throwing wrist. He warmed up before the game but the decision was made to hold him out. He could possibly return for Old Dominion.
The good news for FIU was that senior tight end Jonnu Smith played for the first time since a violent incident with his pregnant girlfriend. Police say she poured boiling water on Smith.
“That’s our top guy,” Gardner said of Smith. “He’s a playmaker. He’s arguably the best player on our team.”
FIU scored on its first possession, a four-play, 82-yard drive that was capped by a 14-yard Gardner touchdown run. The biggest gainer on the drive was the game’s first play from scrimmage, a 48-yard over-the-top strike from Maurice Alexander to freshman Stantley Thomas.
The Herd tied the score at 7-7 with 1:40 left in the first quarter when quarterback Chase Litton hit Emanuel Byrd with a 17-yard pass in the left corner of the end zone.
Christian Alexander gave FIU a 14-7 lead when he hit tight end A.J. Branisel toward the back of the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown toss with 38 seconds left in the first half.
FIU increased its lead to 17-7 with a 29-yard field goal in the third quarter by Austin Taylor.
The Panthers scored two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter — Jones and Gardner each had 8-yard scoring runs — to put the game way.
“I don’t have to make it up — we were 0-4,” Cooper said when asked to assess how far FIU has come from its dreadful start that resulted in the firing of Ron Turner. “There’s been a turnaround.”