Florida International U

FIU builds early lead but crumbles against Pittsburgh

FIU Panthers Jonnu Smith (87) tries to escape a tackle by Pittsburgh defenders during their football game at FIU Stadium in Miami on Sept. 13, 2014.
FIU Panthers Jonnu Smith (87) tries to escape a tackle by Pittsburgh defenders during their football game at FIU Stadium in Miami on Sept. 13, 2014. For the Miami Herald

To upset Pittsburgh on Saturday, FIU needed game-changing plays and some funky fortune in addition to crisp execution.

And FIU got all of that — for one quarter.

After that, the steady body blows of Pitt’s running game mass eroded FIU’s defense. FIU’s explosiveness dissipated against the wind. And so did a 16-0 first-quarter FIU lead crumble into a 42-25 loss at FIU Stadium.

“Obviously, we came out here to win the game,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “That didn’t happen, so we’re disappointed. But, as I told the team, learning how to win is a process. We’re getting there, making strides. We’ve got a good football team. We went up against a good football team. Very physical, as we knew.”

A weird afternoon of three — yes, three — momentum swinging safeties, figurative and literal bolts of South Florida lightning and strangely timed quarterback switches came down to that most basic of elements: the bigger, more punishing team took the necessary ground.

Behind an offensive line averaging 316 pounds, Pitt’s 250-pound sophomore running back James Conner ran for 177 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries, and 205-pound sophomore quarterback Chad Voytik ran for 114 yards on 12 carries. Pitt’s 6-2 sophomore wide receiver Tyler Boyd outjumped excellent coverage by FIU’s 5-9 redshirt junior cornerback Richard Leonard for a 19-yard touchdown.

FIU again started freshman quarterback Alex McGough, then twice switched to junior E.J. Hilliard. McGough threw for 224 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown to fifth-year senior Glenn Coleman that put FIU up 16-0. In addition to his 15-of-30 passing performance, McGough ran for a 3-yard touchdown. Hilliard ran for 31 yards on four carries that began with masterful fake handoffs and was 2 of 5 for 12 yards.

A scoreless game — Conner dropped a handoff and FIU redshirt freshman linebacker Jordan Guest recovered at the FIU 9 — got a flash flood of FIU points with 3:58 left in the first quarter.

After pounding out yardage on its previous drive, Pitt went for a play-action pass from its own 8-yard-line.

“We knew they were going to try to hit us with us play action,” FIU junior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon said. “Coach had me come off the corner, and I made the play.”

McKinnon roared in unblocked and dropped Voytik for a safety. Pitt’s free kick swerved out of bounds: nice break. McGough overthrew sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith, but T.J. Lowder caught the tip off Smith’s fingers for a 33-yard gain to the Pitt 3 for another good break. McGough’s touchdown run followed the next play.

McGough wanted to improve his deep-ball accuracy. He improved it enough to hit Coleman in stride up the right sideline behind Pitt cornerback Reggie Mitchell. Suddenly, FIU had a 16-0 lead and a place in several “Upset Alert” Twitter posts from all corners of the media.

Then, in the second quarter, Pitt got the wind and began knocking it out of FIU. A 71-yard drive ended with Leonard ripping the ball from Conner on the FIU 4. The next Pitt possession, Voytik kept on an option to the right and ran 32 yards for a touchdown.

Another three-and-out, this time with Hilliard at quarterback. Another short punt. Conner blasted through four FIU defenders for 20 yards. Three plays later, Boyd flew over Leonard for the aforementioned 19-yard touchdown. Still, FIU left the field to cheers from the crowd of about 3,000, announced at 10,147.

“They came to play in the first half, and I guess we didn’t,” Conner said. “We underestimated them.”

What remained of FIU’s 16-14 lead disappeared on the Panthers’ second possession of the second half. Punter Chris Ayers kicked a mishandled snap out of the end zone: another safety. Pitt took over at the FIU 47 after the free kick and moved those 47 yards entirely on the ground to Conner’s 3-yard touchdown.

If FIU was reeling, it got saved by the bolt. Lightning in the area prompted a 48-minute delay. Upon returning to the field, the defense held Pitt to a 32-yard field goal after a 9-yard punt started the Pennsylvania Panthers on the FIU 34.

Hilliard’s second shift of the game saw him run for 27 yards on a drive to Austin Taylor’s 43-yard field goal. But the drive after he gave FIU some momentum, Hilliard pulled it back out with a flub under pressure.

Throwing from his end zone, Hilliard threw the ball out of bounds with Pitt defensive end Rori Blair swooping down on him. The closest receiver might have been at Sun Life Stadium, and the result was another safety.

Pitt’s 28-19 lead ballooned to 35-19 when Conner rumbled John Riggins-style through a hole on fourth-and-1 for a 41-yard touchdown. Though 5:49 remained, the dominance that would allow Pitt to answer FIU’s last touchdown with its own had been established.