FIU didn’t get everything it wanted Saturday night from Wagner. But the Panthers definitely got what they needed in the 34-3 rout.
Game-deciding big plays, especially from underclassmen. Some run game production. A win for the first time in nine games, going back to last season. A win at home for the first time in two years.
Relief, especially after last week’s season-opening loss to Bethune-Cookman.
“It’s no secret we’ve had some adversity,” sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith said after he made nine catches for 127 yards, the first 100-yard receiving game of his career. “Even though it’s a Division I-AA team. It feels great to show that we’re not that same team from last year.”
Freshman Alex Gardner’s 138 yards on just 15 carries broke the FIU single-game rushing record for freshman, which was set by Silas Spearman (136 yards) in last season’s 24-23 win at Southern Mississippi, the Panthers’ most recent win.
“The offensive line put me in great position, as well as the coaches with the play calling,” Gardner said. “That was one of my goals coming into this season was to break the freshman rushing record.”
FIU coach Ron Turner said he figured the way Wagner played defense, FIU could suffer some minus or zero runs but get some big plays. Gardner had runs of 16, 14 and 62 yards.
FIU started freshman quarterback Alex McGough (9 of 18 for 60 yards and two touchdowns), then inserted last year’s starter, E.J. Hilliard, late in the second quarter. McGough started the second half, but Hilliard played most of it. Turner said he wouldd continue to play both quarterbacks and lauded Hilliard’s handling of his demotion.
“I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t me that brought the morale of the team down,” said Hilliard, who completed 14 of 15 for 169 yards.
Hilliard’s former Northwestern High teammates, freshman Shemarke Spence, blew up a few Wagner kickoff returns and got his first interception. Spence’s sailing snag of a bobbled pass two plays after a Cory White touchdown put FIU up 24-3 and set up the field goal that gave FIU a 27-3 halftime lead.
That brings up another characteristic this Saturday shared with FIU’s last happy Saturday: a cornucopia of turnovers. FIU came up with six Wagner turnovers, tying a record set against Florida A&M during a 40-23 win in 2004. The teams tied another FIU record by combining for nine turnovers, done three times previously in FIU history.
Wagner started the generosity on its second possession. A miscommunication led to the wide receiver running what looked like a hitch-and-go with quarterback Brian Gehring just throwing the out. Cornerback Richard Leonard stood in place, picked off the pass and raced 60 yards for FIU’s first interception return for a touchdown since 2011.
Because of that and the bouncing Wagner punt that hit an FIU blocker before being recovered by Wagner’s Daniel Mack, FIU’s offense didn’t run its fourth play until 2:14 remained in the first quarter.
“It was different waiting on the sidelines,” McGough said. “You think you’re going back in on third down, and Rich gets a pick six. You go back, sit down. I had to warm up three times before I got back in. But we’ll sit on the sidelines. If the defense is scoring points, we’re all right.”
Before Leonard’s return, FIU’s first possession lasted three plays, all McGough completions. Smith turned the third completion, a flat pass, into a 41-yard touchdown and 7-0 lead.
“That was a great play by Jonnu,” McGough said. “To take a zero-yard pass and take it [41 yards]. That was a big momentum boost for us. Just scoring one touchdown last game, scoring in the first two minutes is big. That helped everybody — defense, offense, special teams.”