Florida International U

FIU’s Richard Leonard turns tide for Panthers in weather-delayed win over FAU Owls

Alex McGough, quarterback for FIU, scrambles for a gain of 13 yards in the second quarter as the FIU Panthers play the FAU Owls on Ocean Bank Field at Florida International University Stadium in Miami.
Alex McGough, quarterback for FIU, scrambles for a gain of 13 yards in the second quarter as the FIU Panthers play the FAU Owls on Ocean Bank Field at Florida International University Stadium in Miami. Miami Herald Staff

A lightning show halted the Shula Bowl at halftime Thursday night at FIU Stadium. Upon resumption, a bolt of lightning from Richard Leonard struck FAU in the third quarter.

Leonard’s 100-yard fumble return turned what was about to be a tie game into a 14-point FIU lead on the way to the Panthers’ 38-10 rout that ended at 12:25 a.m.

Afterwards, the Panthers ran like enthusiastic children across Ocean Bank Field to grab the Shula Bowl trophy, which FIU’s now won three of the last four years. FAU took it last year.

“We just wanted to get it back over here, so we could see it every day,” Leonard said.

“I didn’t say much about it early in the week. (The players) were talking about it,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “Late in the week, we made a point of emphasis: get that trophy and what it represents. Let’s go take that thing back. It’s worth fighting for, let’s take it back.”

FIU (3-3, 2-0 in Conference USA play) led FAU (2-4, 1-1) 14-10 at halftime when lightning cleared FIU Stadium for one hour, 50 minutes. Thursday made three consecutive FIU home games halted by weather.

During the delay, lightning turned out some stadium lights that resumed working by the time the teams started the second half. The game disappeared from FIU radio on 1210AM ESPNDeportes because wind blew off the covering tarpaulin – radio crews at FIU Stadium work outside, under tents – and water inundated the equipment.

A flood of turnovers again guided FIU to victory. Leonard’s fumble return was one of three by the Panthers, who lead the nation with 13 fumble recoveries and 21 total turnovers gained. He also had an end zone interception, his fourth pickoff of the season, that killed an FAU scoring threat in the fourth quarter.

"It's just disappointing that we weren't able to come up with some plays to finish the game, to finish some drives when we were in position, to get points,” FAU coach Charlie Partridge said. “You've got to come out with at least a field goal, and because of the turnovers we weren't able to do that. First time's in the first half, defensively we couldn't get out of third-and-longs, we would get ahead of the chains, but we couldn't get a stop on third-and-long. So there were times on either side of the ball contributed to us not having a successful game."

Freshman running back Alex Gardner ran for 100 yards on 21 carries, making him the first FIU freshman to have two 100-yard rushing games. Freshman quarterback Alex McGough played his best all-around game, going 18 of 29 passing for 160 yards and running seven times for 18 yards and a touchdown. Junior Anthon Samuel ran for 57 yards and two touchdowns.

“My accuracy was better,” McGough said. “My decision-making was better. That goes for run plays and everything.”

The Panthers led 17-10 in the third quarter after getting an Austin Taylor 37-yard field goal on the first drive of the second half. FAU drove to the Panthers’ 4-yard line and watched the Panthers best run defender from the secondary, safety Demarkus Perkins, leave the game for a play after being down.

As Owls’ sophomore running back Jay Warren tried to find the end zone, FIU redshirt sophomore Jordan Davis, in the game for Perkins, stripped Warren. The ball bounced into the end zone, where Leonard scooped it up. Once he dismissed FAU redshirt junior quarterback Jaquez Johnson, he accelerated through the damp night air to his third defensive touchdown this season (two interceptions, one fumble).

“It was a great play by Jordan Davis,” Leonard said. “Somehow, I was just there for it. I need to spark (something). I just picked it up, saw daylight and ran it.”

Leonard pointed to the block by junior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon on FAU tight end Jenson Stoshak as the block that truly set him free.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Turner said. “I’ve been around some pretty good return guys. Devin Hester’s not bad, right? For (Leonard) to do it so many ways – punt returns, kickoff returns, interceptions returns, fumble recoveries. He’s just always around the ball. It’s amazing. It’s amazing what he’s doing.”

Leonard’s the first player in FIU history with three touchdown returns of any kind in one season. It was the second 100-yard touchdown in FIU history. The first? Leonard’s 100-yard kickoff return that proved to be the mortal wound in FIU’s 34-24 win against FAU in 2012.

In a first half guided by three fumbles, national turnover kings FIU took and kept their lead on two recovered fumbles. And, to their great satisfaction, an actual sustained drive.

First, FAU jumped out to a 3-0 lead after fifth-year senior Alex Deleon jumped on Clinton Taylor’s fumbled punt return at the FIU 34. The Owls took sophomore Greg Joseph’s 26-yard field goal with a sigh of relief – Leonard twice nearly came up with interceptions, the second time in the end zone on the play before the field goal.

Once the FIU offense finally stepped onto the field for its first possession, it produced the kind of steady succession of well-executed plays it hadn’t since late in the loss to Pitt. McGough went three for three for 28 yards and ran for 7 yards on his only carry. Gardner ended the drive by cutting back through a massive hole on the left side and blowing 24 yards for a touchdown.

Upon getting the ball back, the Owls began a run of eight consecutive pass plays, a nod to how well FIU squatted on the run. A Tony Moore run broke up the 7-on-7 style of attack. But on third and 8, junior Denzell Perine swatted the ball from Johnson and junior Lars Koht pounced on it for FIU’s 11th fumble recovery of the season.

Given the ball at the Owls’ 18, the Panthers did what they weren’t able to do last week against Alabama-Birmingham when turnovers gave them the ball in the red zone. There, they settled for field goal attempts after pre-snap penalties. This time, they got a 12-yard swing pass to Gardner on third and 6 from the 14. After an incompletion, they ran Anthon Samuel three times, scoring on fourth and goal from the 1.

With FIU a stop and a drive away from running the Owls into the night, FAU came up with their own perfect drive. Johnson hit Deleon for 13 yards, then Lucky Whitehead for 31. Warren broke a dive through the left side for a 31-yard touchdown run to cut the Panthers’ lead to 14-10.

Warren also ended the Owls next possession in a much happier way for FIU. On first and goal from the FIU 9, Warren fumbled when tackled by junior defensive end Michael Wakefield. Davison Colimon recovered for the Panthers at the 9.

Scoring summary

FIRST QUARTER

FAU: FG Joseph 26. Time left: 10:28. Drive: 6 plays, 25 yards, 1:53. Key play: Clinton Taylor fumbled a punt and Alex Deleon recovered at the FIU 34. FAU 3, FIU 0.

FIU: Gardner 24-yard run (Taylor kick). Time left: 7:50. Drive: 7 plays, 70 yards, 2:38. Key play: FIU 7, FAU 3.

SECOND QUARTER

FIU: Samuel 1-yard run (Taylor kick). Time left: 11:35. Drive: 7 plays, 18 yards, 3:13. Key play: Denzell Perine knocks the ball from FAU quarterback Jaquez Johnson, Lars Koht recovered at the Owls’ 18. FIU 14, FAU 3.

FAU: Warren 31-yard run (Joseph kick). Time left: 9:29. Drive: 3 plays, 85 yards, 2:06. Key play: FIU 14, FAU 10.

THIRD QUARTER

FIU: FG Taylor 37. Time left: 11:18. Drive: 9 plays, 42 yards, 3:42. Key play: Alex Gardner bursts for 23 yards to the FAU 27. FIU 17, FAU 10.

FIU: Leonard 100-yard fumble return (Taylor kick). Time left: 3:39. FIU 24, FAU 10.

FOURTH QUARTER

FIU: McGough 1-yard run (Taylor kick). Time left: 8:23. Drive: 10 plays, 80 yards, 3:23. Key play: McGough finds tight end Jonnu Smith to his left. Smith turns it upfield for 18 yards to the FAU 25. FIU 31, FAU 10.

FIU: Samuel 9-yard run (Taylor kick). Time left: 1:58. Drive: 7 plays, 41 yards, 4:25. Key play: Samuel runs for 6 yards on third and four, taking the ball down to the FAU 29. FIU 38, FAU 10.

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