Florida International U

A very happy birthday for FIU coach Davis as Panthers close in on East Division title

Florida International University’s Anthony Jones, run the ballagainst the Charlotte 49ers Stadium on November 17, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Florida International University’s Anthony Jones, run the ballagainst the Charlotte 49ers Stadium on November 17, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Miami Herald

A college football game with 77 points and more than 1,000 yards’ total offense actually turned on a pair of defensive plays Saturday.

FIU kept its Conference USA East Division title hopes alive by holding off Charlotte 42-35 on a sunny afternoon, and the Panthers had plenty of stellar offensive moments.

But late in the first quarter, with Charlotte winning 7-3 and driving into FIU territory, the Panthers forced a fumble from 49er running back Ishod Finger. Linebacker Sage Lewis scooped up the ball and raced — as quickly as a 240-pounder can race — 61 yards for a touchdown.

On Charlotte’s next series, the 49ers drove to the FIU 17, but the Panthers stopped conference rushing leader Benny Lemay on fourth down. On the next play, FIU quarterback James Morgan connected with Austin Maloney on a 54-yard pass.

The Panthers only got a field goal on the drive for a 13-7 lead. And Charlotte later took a 14-13 lead.

But the two defensive plays kept FIU in the game early, and the Panthers eventually got their offense moving at full speed in the second half.

“I was proud of these guys,” said coach Butch Davis, whose birthday was Saturday. “They really fought hard, although we were a lot more effective in the second half.”

FIU closes the regular season Saturday at home against Marshall, and either a Panther victory or a Middle Tennessee loss against West Division leader UAB will send Davis’ team into the conference championship Dec. 1.

In the meantime, here are four takeaways from Saturday’s venture into North Carolina:

1. Survive and advance.

The Panthers beat a desperate foe Saturday. Charlotte needed a victory against FIU and again next Saturday at Florida Atlantic to become bowl-eligible for the first time in the program’s four FBS seasons. The Panthers took a two-touchdown lead (27-14) early in the third quarter, and the teams then matched touchdowns the rest of the way.

Charlotte outgained FIU 534-490 in total yardage, but the Panthers did enough to win.

2. The offense is humming.

FIU’s 490 total yards are a season high against the 49ers, eclipsing the previous high of 434 logged by Appalachian State in early September. The Panthers rushed for 196 yards against the No. 4 rushing defense in the country. “In the second half, we got things going,” said running back Napoleon Maxwell, who scored the final FIU touchdown on a 52-yard run. “Our O line dominated.”

3. Anthony is back.

Anthony Jones had his best performance since returning two weeks ago after being injured in a Sept. 6 drive-by shooting in Opa-locka. He carried 11 times for 74 yards and caught two passes.

“I’m back,” he declared after Saturday’s game. “I’m ready to take this to the next level next week.”

“Having Anthony back takes a lot of weight off our shoulders,” Maxwell added. “We have a lot of talented backs, but Anthony does some things that nobody else can do.”

4. Run defense still needs work.

The Panthers surrendered 281 rushing yards, 165 of those by Lemay. That’s been a problem area for FIU, and next week’s foe – Marshall – ranks is the fifth-best rushing team in Conference USA.

Davis said much of that was due to Lemay. “They’ve got one of the best running backs in the conference,” he said of the 49ers. In addition, he noted, Charlotte switched from former Miami quarterback Evan Shirreffs to Hasaan Klugh, much more of a running threat. “That really helped their running game,” Davis said.

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