Despite having one of its best starts in school history, FIU was humbled by shorthanded Middle Tennessee 37-17 at Red Floyd Stadium on Saturday.
“They’ve had a chance to build and grown and have had their process over eight, 10, 12 years,” FIU first-year coach Butch Davis said. “It’s very evident that they just plug in guys.”
From the start, FIU (3-2, 2-1 Conference USA) couldn’t capitalize on a Middle Tennessee (3-3, 1-1) offense without its top two players.
The Panthers gave up 426 total yards as Middle Tennessee had enough depth to put together four extended scoring drives of nine plays or more.
Sophomore quarterback John Urzua, making his fourth start of the season in place of injured veteran Brent Stockstill, picked apart the FIU defense with screens and short passes. He finished 25 of 31 with 250 yards and a touchdown.
Middle Tennessee’s Tavares Thomas, who had only one offensive touch all season, scored three touchdowns on six red-zone carries from the Wildcat formation.
“We had to tackle in space,” Davis said. “We knew once they got the ball in space on bubble screens, jailbreak screens and in the running game, they have good talented skill kids.”
Where Middle Tennessee’s offense clicked from the start, FIU struggled to put together consistent possessions.
FIU managed only a field goal in the first half and watched a promising possession undone by three consecutive tackles behind the line. In the game, FIU gave up four total sacks and nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
The passing game opened up for quarterback Alex McGough and receiver Thomas Owens in the second half as Owens finished with a career-high 11 receptions and 162 yards.
With a four-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, the McGough-Owens connection helped narrow the deficit to 27-17 in the fourth quarter, but a Middle Tennessee scoring drive and a pair of turnovers put the game out of reach.
McGough finished 20 of 31 for 209 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
“We’ve got to get more consistent on offense,” McGough said. “When we do our job, we score points, we move the ball and get to down field.”
Despite the loss in Murfreesboro, FIU will remain in the C-USA East lead in the win column, a partial victory for a team that has played most of the season on the road.
FIU will return to South Florida to face Tulane next week after playing four of the first five games on the road, including a home date with Alcorn State moved to Birmingham, Ala., because of Hurricane Irma.
“We’re in the process of trying to build a program,” Davis said. “During the first five games, there are probably more positives than negatives but today wasn’t one of them.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ FIU punter Stone Wilson helped salvage some of the field position battle, averaging 48.5 yards per punt including a 55-yarder and another that pinned Middle Tennessee inside the 10.
▪ FIU rushed for a season-low 85 yards.
▪ With two turnovers and no takeaways, FIU was minus-two in the turnover margin. The Panthers haven’t had a positive turnover margin this season and are minus-6 all year.
▪ Middle Tennessee linebacker Khalil Brooks chased down FIU all day long with five tackles for a loss and three sacks.