Florida International U

Punchless Panthers can’t find offense again as FIU falls to 1-6

For succinct perspective on FIU’s offensive futility Saturday night against Louisiana Tech at FIU Stadium, consider: the football team came a one-play touchdown drive from being outscored this weekend by FIU women’s soccer player Crystal McNamara.

That one play, a 38-yard catch-and-run by freshman tight end Jonnu Smith, accounted for all the Panthers’ scoring in a 23-7 loss to Louisiana Tech. It also accounted for 19.2 percent of FIU’s total offense — 197 yards.

“That was one of the few well-executed plays,” FIU coach Ron Turner said.

“Our defense stepped up. Challenged them all week, and they stepped up and played a hell of a game,” Turner added. “Football’s a team game. You can’t have one phase playing really, really well and the other two not getting the job done. Defense got turnovers. Played hard, fast and physical and did everything we asked them to do. Offense, we didn’t do anything. We didn’t execute. Special teams didn’t execute. We didn’t make a play.”

Other than that, the football team put up less on the scoreboard than McNamara did in FIU’s 1-0 women’s soccer win at FAU on Friday night.

Redshirt junior quarterback Jake Medlock finished 11 of 26 for 128 yards, fumbled a snap that led to a Louisiana Tech field goal and was on the launching end of a fumbled pitchout that deflated an FIU drive the one time momentum seemed to ride with the Panthers. Turner admitted the staff considered replacing Medlock with sophomore E.J. Hilliard but still felt Medlock gave the Panthers a better chance to win.

Sophomore running back Lamarq Caldwell ran for 42 yards on nine carries for FIU.

At least the offensive ineptitude — two interceptions, four fumbles, one of which was lost — occurred in relative obscurity. Saturday’s game began with less than 1,000 fans in FIU Stadium. Those present saw Louisiana Tech sophomore running back Kenneth Dixon, at 5-10, 220 pounds, muscle manfully through FIU for 119 yards on 23 carries and turn a screen pass into a game-clinching, 39-yard touchdown by bulling through several tackles.

After a two-point conversion, the Bulldogs (3-5, 2-2 Conference USA) led 20-7 with 8:35 left. Rarely has a 13-point lead seemed so gargantuan.

“I had the one missed tackle on that touchdown, so that’s sticking with me right now,” redshirt junior Justin Halley said. “He’s a hard runner. He’s not the biggest back. He just runs hard with a low pad level.”

Halley had two of FIU’s three interceptions, the first of which set up Smith’s touchdown. Senior cornerback Sam Miller had the third interception of freshman quarterback Ryan Higgins, who went 20 of 31 for 192 yards.

After being shut out in two of their first four games, FIU (1-6, 1-2) put up 24 points in each of its past two games, a win at Southern Mississippi and a home loss to Alabama-Birmingham. The Panthers knew Louisiana Tech’s defense posed a stiffer challenge.

A challenge they failed to meet.

“It is pretty disappointing because we feel like we’ve had pretty good offensive production the last few weeks,” Caldwell said.

Louisiana Tech kicked a field goal at the end of its first drive to lead 3-0. Later in the first, Tech’s Connor Nichols’ desperate dive to swat a punt before it landed in the FIU end zone pinned the Panthers on their own 1-yard line. FIU got a first down when, on third-and-7 from the 4, Caldwell carried for 6, fumbled and Clinton Taylor recovered at the 11.

Three plays later, on third and 3, Medlock fumbled a snap and Tech’s Shakeil Lucas recovered at the FIU 16. Then, after Dixon ran for 12 on the first play, Tech got into the act. Fumbles by Dixon and quarterback Ryan Higgins helped turn first-and-goal at the 4 into a 35-yard field goal.

A 33-yard field goal by Kyle Fischer put Tech up 9-0 at halftime. On the second play from scrimmage of the third quarter, Halley picked off Higgins. Smith’s touchdown ensued, and FIU trailed only 9-7.

FIU induced a three-and-out helped by redshirt sophomore Luis Rosado stuffing Higgins for 2 yards on second down and redshirt junior Demarkus Perkins breaking up a third-down bomb. Senior Sam Miller fair-caught the Tech punt at the FIU 42, great field position for getting at least a field goal to take the lead.

Instead, Medlock got pressured into a throwaway on first down. On second down, Medlock’s low pitchout to freshman Silas Spearman wound up on the ground. Spearman recovered for a loss of 13. Medlock scrambled for 12 on third and 23. Momentum gone.

Related stories from Miami Herald