Florida International U

Big plays fuel FIU Panthers in 34-20 win over UAB

Florida International quarterback Alex McGough (12), offensive lineman Brandon Taylor (51) and offensive tackle Aaron Neilson (70) celebrate after McGough threw a touchdown pass in the first half of an NCAA college football game against UAB, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in Birmingham, Ala.
Florida International quarterback Alex McGough (12), offensive lineman Brandon Taylor (51) and offensive tackle Aaron Neilson (70) celebrate after McGough threw a touchdown pass in the first half of an NCAA college football game against UAB, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in Birmingham, Ala. AP

You can have your time of possession. College football in the second decade of the 21st century comes down to what fans call “big plays,” and what modern coaches call “explosive plays.”

And FIU’s 34-20 upset of Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday demonstrated again that the team that has the most bang walks away with the bucks.

Of freshman quarterback Alex McGough’s nine completions (in 24 passes), two were the second- and fifth-longest touchdown passes in FIU history, an 85-yarder to Glenn Coleman and a 75-yarder to tight end Jonnu Smith.

It didn’t matter that the offense managed only three field-goal attempts, two successful, given short fields by turnovers.

But it certainly helped that redshirt junior Richard Leonard and fifth-year senior Demarkus Perkins ran back interceptions for touchdowns.

After Perkins’ 31-yard trip to the end zone, FIU led 34-13 with 13:40 left in the game. The Panthers’ defense had just as many touchdowns at that point as UAB’s 41-points-per-game offense.

The Panthers picked off four passes (two by Leonard) and recovered two fumbles, the six turnovers tying a school record in FIU’s win against Wagner.

“We didn’t turn the ball over, did we?” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “You win the turnover battle 6-0, you’re going to win.”

FIU’s defensive line owned the line of scrimmage on the pass rush. Three sacks, 11/2 by defensive tackle Imarjaye Albury, understate the effect the entire line had on UAB’s combustible passing game.

Turner said “there’s no question” FIU’s pass rush played a role in the interceptions, but he also lauded the FIU cornerbacks for keeping the Blazers wide receivers from running amok. Leonard said they played UAB’s wideouts as normal — get in their faces, be disruptive.

A jubilant team flies back to South Florida at 1-0 in Conference USA with FAU coming to FIU Stadium on Thursday.

“This was huge, the locker room was going nuts,” Smith said. “Not only because it’s a win, but it’s a conference win on the road. It gives us a lot of confidence going into the next game.”

The game’s rhythm was set early.

FIU (2-3) won the toss and deferred, giving UAB (2-2, 0-1) the chance to display its high-powered offense first. An 18-yard gain by Jordan Howard on an option preceded JJ Nelson’s leaping catch of a post for 40 yards in front of McKinnon. Three plays later, D.J. Vinson plowed in from 2 yards out for a 7-0 UAB lead.

Though that 74-yard drive was a nightmare start for FIU, the defense woke up and put the Blazers down for a late afternoon nap. The next four Blazers’ drives went: fumbled overhand lateral recovered by FIU, three-and-out, three-and-out, FIU interception return for a touchdown.

Leonard jumped in front of a Jeremi Briscoe throw to the right and raced 25 yards to tie the score 7-7.

“We were just in man; I did what coach told me to do,” Leonard said. “The ball happened to come my way. I undercut it and took it to the house.”

UAB responded with its best drive since the first possession, moving steadily to the FIU 29. There, on third-and-10, it exploded again. Or, rather, tight end Gerald Everette did, blasting through three FIU attempted tackles over the last 10 yards of a 29-yard touchdown catch.

UAB never figured out how to block Wakefield on defense or special teams — he blocked the extra point.

FIU hadn’t moved the ball well. Nobody in Legion Field expected much from second-and-21 on the FIU 25. McGough’s quick screen to Smith caught the Blazers with only two defenders on that side. Coleman took care of one with a perfect cut block, opening the left sideline for Smith to run the distance.

“We always expect it to go for a big play, especially with him running the bubble [screen],” McGough said. “He can run. We like to get him the ball in space. We expect big plays when he gets the ball in his hands.”

Coleman got his touchdown in the third quarter. He got well behind cornerback Lamarcus Farmer, leaped to catch McGough’s deep throw and shifted back to full speed to outrace the Blazers’ secondary the last 50 yards to the end zone.

The 21-13 lead became 24-13 after FIU’s Fred Russ forced a fumble on the kickoff that Randy Harvey recovered. Leonard’s second interception set up another field goal that sent FIU into the fourth quarter leading 27-13.

“I just read the quarterback’s eyes, and he took me to where the ball was,” Leonard said.

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