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Improbable plays lift FIU Panthers in comeback win over Middle Tennessee

FIU Quarter back, Alex McGough, looks to make a throw for yardage during the game against Middle Tennessee State University on Saturday.
FIU Quarter back, Alex McGough, looks to make a throw for yardage during the game against Middle Tennessee State University on Saturday. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

A near-empty FIU Stadium for Senior Day. The Panthers sloughing about as Middle Tennessee State built a second-quarter deficit almost as large as FIU’s average points per game. Saturday’s FIU home finale looked like TV filler or time killer until Saturday night.

And then FIU swerved this bland beating into a colorful comeback Oz of a 38-28 victory with a 28-point run and an entertaining collection of wild, improbable plays.

Such as a successful Hail Mary to sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith. A fumbled pass scooped up and run in for a touchdown by the fumbling team (that would be Smith again). Breakaway runs out of nothing. Diving finger-tip catches of bombs. Huge kickoff, punt and interception returns. Everything but a lightning delay.

“I’m very happy for the seniors,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “The last time they walked off the field with a W … for everything they’ve gone through and what they’ve done since we’ve gotten here.”

FIU is 4-7 overall and 3-4 in Conference USA after ending its losing streak at four. Middle is 5-5 overall, 4-2 in the conference.

Almost half of freshman quarterback Alex McGough’s 17 completions on 24 throws went to Smith. He ended the night with eight catches for 140 yards. Because by NCAA rules a touchdown recovery of a fumbled reception counts as a touchdown reception, Smith got the first three-touchdown-catch game in FIU history. He also now holds the FIU season record for touchdown receptions with eight.

Junior running back Anthon Samuel’s second consecutive 100-yard game, 120 yards on 19 carries, included a 31-yard burst that set up the Hail Mary. After looking helpless in the first half while giving up 21 points and 284 yards (6.3 yards per play), FIU’s defense allowed only seven points, 144 yards (4.4 yards per play) and forced four turnovers in the second half.

“During halftime we talked with each other,” FIU junior linebacker Davison Colimon said. “We were kind of low, had to pick it up. We emphasized everybody doing their job. Not doing nothing outside of what you were supposed to do.”

The common element in FIU’s five wins in the past two years under Turner: turnovers by the bunch. The Panthers got five, fumble recoveries by juniors Jeremiah McKinnon and Michael Wakefield and interceptions by McKinnon, Colimon and senior Demarkus Perkins. Colimon, a high hurdles state champion in high school, took his pickoff back 79 yards for the touchdown that put FIU ahead 31-21 during an incredible third quarter.

But the third came to its fantastic quality logically following the last 3:03 of the second. Down 21-3 just 17:07 into the game with 9 yards of offense, FIU’s offensive engine turned over after Richard Leonard’s 30-yard punt return to the 50. Leonard’s 59-yard return led to FIU’s field goal. This one paid off when Smith took a hitch pass up the left side through two defenders for a 10-yard touchdown.

Any FIU joy over the 21-10 score appeared brief as Middle marched to second-and-goal at the 1-yard line with less than a minute left in the half. As running back Jordan Howard faced linebacker Anthony Wint in the hole, he lost the ball. McKinnon recovered in the end zone.

Instead of running out the clock, FIU ran Samuel for a couple of plays. On the second, he kept churning until the Middle defenders fell away, allowing him to race 31 yards to the Middle 40. From there, McGough heaved the ball to the end zone, where three Middle defensive backs and three FIU receivers looked to the skies for the football manna to descend.

“I got position where I should’ve been, the ball got tipped and got into my hands,” Smith said.

Colimon and Turner mentioned how buoyant that left the locker room at halftime. Similar to last week’s loss at Old Dominion, that momentum carried over into the third quarter.

Wakefield forced and recovered a fumble by Middle running back Reggie Whatley at the Middle 45. After a first down, a fumbled snap turned into a 20-yard loss and set up third and 22 from the Middle 44. The ensuing screen to freshman running back Napoleon Maxwell snaked up the left side when linebacker T.T. Barber upended Maxwell. The ball flew out, but bounced fortuitously to Smith who skipped past a tackler and ran the last 22 yards into the end zone.

"That fumble was my bad," Smith chuckled. "I was engaged in a block with my guy. He disengaged and he forced the fumble. I was right there, so I had to make up for it."

Devin Clarke’s diving fingertip catch of a 44-yard bomb moved the Blue Raiders to the FIU 19. The imminent score, however, turned out to be FIU’s. Perine tipped quarterback Austin Grammar’s pass, Colimon picked it off and slithered 79 yards.

"My first pick, I wanted to make something out of it," Colimon said.

But that’s the touchdown that gave FIU a 31-21 lead. After Middle closed to 31-28 with a 10-yard Jeremiah Bryson run set up by Whatley’s 50-yard kickoff return, FIU ground out an 11-play, 85-yard drive to Samuel’s 2-yard touchdown run.

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