It ended for Florida International not long after it started. A shot at a Gasparilla Bowl victory against Temple died, for all intents and purposes, when quarterback Alex McGough was driven into the turf at Tropicana Field on the Panthers’ third play from scrimmage, smashing his left shoulder and rendering it useless.
As McGough watched from the sideline with what was diagnosed as a broken collarbone, his arm in a white sling, FIU never recovered, losing 28-3.
An offense that had scored 104 points in its final two regular-season games managed a field goal and nothing else. The nation’s top-ranked red zone scoring offense reached that destination just once. A quarterback on the verge of breaking school records threw only one pass.
And Butch Davis’ first season at FIU ended on a hollow note.
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The Panthers finished 8-5, matching the best record in school history. But any hope of a second-ever bowl win all-but-vanished when McGough was brought down barely two minutes into the game and his backup, Maurice Alexander out of Miami’s Booker T. Washington, couldn’t make up for the loss.
“It’s very difficult when you lose Alex McGough, your starting quarterback. It was tough,” Davis said. “It was an awful lot of a load for Maurice Alexander to come in and for him to kind of get a little bit of rhythm, have a little bit of success, but it wasn’t enough.”
Alexander had thrown just six passes all season, completing two. Two of his first five passes on Thursday were caught — for interceptions.
Only a determined effort by the FIU defense kept it close.
“A lot more of the weight was on us,” said Panthers linebacker Anthony Wint. “I just couldn’t be more proud of my defense, stepping up on every play, fighting to the end.”
A Jose Borregales field goal late in the third quarter cut the Temple lead to 7-3 and improved FIU’s red zone scoring proficiency to 40 for 41 on the season. It was as close as the Panthers would ever get.
The Owls answered with a touchdown on their next drive and Temple, which has been playing football since 1894, pulled away for the school’s third-ever bowl win.
For FIU, the Gasparilla Bowl became a case of what might have been.
McGough entered the contest chasing the school record for completions and passing yardage.
But after completing a 7-yard pass on the Panthers’ second play, McGough took off running for a 17-yard gain before being brought down at the FIU 48. He was slow to get up, favoring his left arm. He remained in for two more plays before signaling to the bench, bending over in obvious pain.
“At the time he wasn’t exactly sure (about the injury),” Davis said. “Was it his shoulder? Turned out to be a fractured collarbone. He couldn’t pick his arm up.”
McGough left for the locker room and when he later returned to the sidelines, his arm was in a sling. Davis instructed McGough to provide advice to Alexander between possessions.
“I talked to him (McGough) at the locker room at halftime,” Davis recalled. “’You know him as well as anybody. Can you, when you have opportunities between possessions, just share some things that will calm him down?’”
Alexander, a lightly experienced sophomore who led Booker T. Washington to a 15-0 record and state title in 2015, was sacked on his very first snap and fired an interception off the hands of receiver Darrius Scott on his first pass attempt.
Alexander would end up being sacked seven times and fumbled once.
“We could just never get a situation offensively where we could just finish drives,” Davis said. “A couple of times we had some drives, we weren’t able to finish them, put it in the end zone.”
Despite the outcome, Davis said he was still satisfied with the season.
“I am extraordinarily proud of this football team, regardless of the outcome tonight, and nobody’s ever happy about losing a game,” Davis said. “But what these kids accomplished this year, nobody thought was even remotely possible.”