Florida International U

FIU Panthers lead Conference USA’s East Division as Richard Leonard continues to make plays

Lars Koht of FIU recovers a fumble in the second quarter as the FIU Panthers play the FAU Owls on Ocean Bank Field at Florida International University Stadiumin in Miami, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014.
Lars Koht of FIU recovers a fumble in the second quarter as the FIU Panthers play the FAU Owls on Ocean Bank Field at Florida International University Stadiumin in Miami, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. Miami Herald Staff

In the Currently Overused Words Top 25 poll, “amazing” definitely would get some No.1 votes. Also getting votes as qualifying for appropriate use of “amazing” would be FIU football’s Richard Leonard.

But here’s what’s really amazing: FIU, a team coming off a 1-11 season and almost unanimously picked to win three or fewer games, can see bowl eligibility.

Squashing FAU 38-10 late Thursday night at FIU Stadium left the Panthers halfway there, 3-3 and atop Conference USA’s East Division at 2-0.

Next week, FIU goes to Texas-San Antonio, which lost a 41-37 shootout to FAU last week. Rice, banged up all season, comes to FIU on Nov.1. Old Dominion scores with great frequency but has given up 36.5 points per game to its Football Bowl Subdivision opponents. Middle Tennessee State’s similar to Old Dominion. North Texas got crushed by Louisiana Tech 42-21 in its only conference game so far.

In other words, all those teams seem quite vulnerable to the nation’s leading turnover-collecting defense and a steadily coalescing, freshman-quarterbacked offense.

Of course, none of that down-the-road stuff mattered to the Panthers at 12:25 a.m. Friday, when the Shula Bowl finally ended after a two-hour, lightning-delay extended halftime. They just ran to take back the trophy they have won from FAU three of the past four seasons.

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

What FIU would like to see every week is a replay of Thursday. The Panthers rushed for 185 yards on 41 carries as a team. Freshman running back Alex Gardner ran for 100 yards on 21 carries, including a 24-yard touchdown run. Redshirt junior Anthon Samuel picked up 57 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries.

“At the end of the game, we ran the same play five or six straight times,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “If you can do that and control it, you’ve got something going.”

Turner loved the presnap reads and decisions made by freshman quarterback Alex McGough. McGough completed 18 of 29 passes for 160 yards. He accounted for no touchdowns passing, one touchdown rushing and no turnovers.

And “turnovers” brings us to the defense, which recovered three fumbles and picked off one pass. That brings FIU’s nation-leading totals to 13 fumble recoveries and 21 total turnovers gained.

Two of the fumble recoveries were the fourth and fifth times this season FIU’s defused a scoring chance by getting a fumble inside the 10.

The first, by junior linebacker Davison Colimon, kept FAU from taking the lead when the Panthers led 14-10 in the second quarter. The second, Leonard’s 100-yard fumble return, proved the crushing blow — instead of FAU tying the scoreat 17, FIU held a 24-10 lead.

Halfway through the season, Leonard’s causing several names from South Florida’s college football past to be invoked.

Naturally, FIU watchers compare Leonard to current Indianapolis Colts deep threat T.Y. Hilton (FIU 2008-11).

Leonard began the season with 148 punt return yards, smashing Hilton’s school single-game record for punt-return yardage (97). Hilton holds FIU’s career record with six career touchdown returns. Leonard’s five for his career and three this season put him second to Hilton in career touchdown returns and second to Nick Turnbull’s four in 2005 for touchdown returns in a season.

Leonard’s got the only two 100-yard returns in FIU history, the two pivotal plays in FIU’s past two Shula Bowl victories over FAU: a 100-yard kickoff return score in 2012 and Thursday’s fumble return, as electrifying as the lightning that extended halftime to more than two hours.

The Owls sat 4 yards from tying the score. FAU sophomore running back Jay Warren hit the hole, and junior safety Jordan Davis hit Warren. Out spilled the ball into the end zone.

Leonard scooped up the ball, built speed until about the FIU 40, then kicked it into Shelby Mustang gear.

“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. It was a great block by [cornerback] Jeremiah [McKinnon]. He’s the one that sprung me. He hit [tight end Jenson Stoshak], and I was off to the races after that.”

The last game Turner coached in Miami before taking the FIU job was Super Bowl 41 as Chicago’s offensive coordinator. That’s the Super Bowl in which University of Miami product Devin Hester, the NFL’s all-time leader in return touchdowns, opened with a kickoff return touchdown for the Bears.

Like many coaches, Turner tends to refer to players by number in casual conversation, but such is Turner’s admiration for Hester as a player and person that he gets “Devin” or “Devin Hester.”

So, Turner’s praise carries some weight.

“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.”

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