There seemed a conspiracy afoot to dilute anything resembling Florida International momentum on a surreal Saturday night that stretched into Sunday morning.
The Panthers had just scored on a James Morgan-to-Tony Gaiter pass covering 11 yards with only 14 seconds to play in the first half, exactly the sort of thing a coach wants to take into a locker room.
But he doesn’t want to stay there almost two hours pondering it.
As Old Dominion and FIU players filed off the field at halftime, lightning flashed overhead and about 15,000 spectators made for safer, dryer places. Apparently those places were home, because only a few dozen came back 2 hours, 11 minutes later to see the Panthers’ 19-yard, 86-yard, 8-minute 10-second drive after the second half kickoff, and a 99-yard drive on their next possession to finish off a 28-20 win.
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“We finished the second quarter on a kind of high note and kind of settled down,” FIU coach Butch Davis said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a delay that was even close to that.”
The team support staff eyed the forecast and went to a nearby Walmart for what became a halftime meal. “Jed Keime, who is our director of football operations, is a genius,” Davis said. “He bought a ton of food, just in case.”
A bit of psychology helped.
“We told them ‘think of this as the start of the game,’ ” Davis said. “You’d be coming here an hour, hour and a half before the game, so let’s just mentally play the game.’ ”
South Florida also helped.
“This sounds crazy, but I think if there’s a football team in America that’s more prepared to handle [the weather] than us, I don’t now who it is,” Davis said. “It seems like almost every day at practice, we have a 30-minute lightning delay. This week we had an hour delay where we had to go into the basketball gym and finish practice.”
James Morgan, the law student who transferred from Bowling Green with two seasons to play, established as the Panthers’ No. 1 quarterback after competition with Christian Alexander. He completed 17 of 27 passes for 251 yards and touchdowns passes to Gaiter, CJ Worton and Austin Maloney. Morgan’s one interception, in the opening quarter, didn’t cost FIU any points, but it did earn him time on the sideline to watch Alexander.
“[Morgan] is going to start the game next week [against Massachusetts],” Davis said. “[But] we learned an unbelievable lesson last year when we rode Alex McGough’s shoulders through the entire season. When he went down on the second play of the bowl game [a 28-3 loss to Temple in the Gasparilla Bowl], we were totally unprepared. Now, no matter what happens, we’re going to continue to try to play two quarterbacks.”
Expect Morgan, though, to get the lion’s share of the time — particularly if he plays as he did Saturday.
“I definitely feel like I’m getting more comfortable,” Morgan said. “In terms of the entire offensive dynamic, we’re all helping each other. I’m just going to take it game by game.”
The result ended a tumultuous week for the Panthers. The came onto the field Saturday holding up the jerseys of Anthony Jones (No. 2) and Mershawn Miller (62), who were shot Thursday in a drive-by attack in Opa-Locka.
“They were seriously concerned about it initially,” Davis said. “After they knew both were going to be OK, I think it lessened the stress on them. … All they did was talk about ‘2-62, 2-62.’ They wanted to win the game for those two kids.
“As I told them [Friday], ‘today is a day of celebration.’ … They’re both alive.”
Davis’ long career in coaching football offers perspective.
“I’ve had to be in a locker room where the news went in the other direction, and I can tell you that it gut-wrenching for staffs and coaches,” he said. “Our prayers go out to both of those players and their families.”