Six conference games still remain but FIU can at least enjoy its first week as division leader.
The six other rivals of Conference USA’s East Division are trailing the Panthers this week. And it took overcoming recent frustrations against a conference rival to elevate FIU in its current lofty spot.
Quarterback James Morgan directed a late fourth-quarter drive, culminated by a 23-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Worton. Safety Olin Cushion’s interception in the end zone with 34 seconds remaining secured FIU’s 24-21 victory against Middle Tennessee on Saturday night at Riccardo Silva Stadium.
FIU placekicker Jose Borregales also played a key role in the win with three field goals exceeding 40 yards, including a school record 53-yard conversion as time expired to end the first half.
“I can’t even tell you how proud I am of our football team, and the growth they are making every single week,” FIU coach Butch Davis said. “We said at the start of the season that we needed to try to get better every single week, let’s not worry about last week, just worry about this current game.”
The Panthers (4-2, 2-0) ended a three game losing streak against Middle Tennessee, which held a 9-4 record in the series history prior to Saturday.
“Our kids had an awful lot of respect for Middle Tennessee,” Davis said. “You know that they have talented players and you have to play hard every play.”
Morgan completed 27 of 36 passes for 311 yards. The red-shirt junior also threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Shemar Thornton in the second quarter.
“I get all the accolades but how about the plays that these guys are making,” Morgan said of his teammates.
Morgan noticed a confident unit when the offense began its game-winning drive with 8:02 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Panthers were successful on three third-down conversions during the 10-play drive. After Worton’s catch gave FIU a 22-21 lead, the Panthers converted a two-point play as Maurice Alexander completed an option pass to Tony Gaiter in the end zone.
“We talked to each other in the huddle before the drive and said, ‘we’re going to do this,” Morgan said. “We all really believed it.”
But before the Panthers could exhale, they withstood a late Raiders drive. Quarterback Asher O’Hara, who replaced injured starter Brent Stockstill in the second quarter, guided Middle Tennessee (3-3, 2-1) to the FIU 16.
The Raiders opted for a go-ahead touchdown instead of the field goal that would have forced overtime when Cushion stepped in front receiver Patrick Smith in the end zone and intercepted O’Hara’s pass.
“I was just thinking about the guy in front of me,” Cushion said. “[O’Hara] was staring at me all the time. When I saw the ball, I just grabbed it.
“That was the biggest moment in my football career. The first thing I wanted to do is see my dad. I had seen him during the game. I celebrated with my team and then I had to go find my dad.”
The Panthers will have their first test as sole division leader when they close a three-game home stretch Saturday night against Rice.
“It’s a great accomplishment,” Morgan said of Saturday’s win. “It gives us momentum. We played a really good team today and came out on top.
“The message is we never give up.”