Panthers’ comeback bid goes wide right
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The FIU Panthers had reached the point where they felt they could be totally reliant on Jose Borregales. The kicker was, in some ways, the primary driver of their comeback throughout the second half against the Arkansas State Red Wolves on Saturday. He hit a 48-yard field goal in the third quarter and then a 52-yard kick in the fourth. A 14-point second-half deficit in the Camellia Bowl was all the way down to one when he lined up for a short kick in the fourth quarter.
The specialist lined up on the left hash mark with less than six minutes remaining and this time his kick didn’t drift between the uprights. The redshirt junior pulled it to the right and an elusive lead remained unattainable for FIU. Instead, Arkansas State answered with a touchdown to help put away a 34-26 win at the Cramton Bowl.
“He was obviously hugely disappointed,” coach Butch Davis said. “He hit some huge ones tonight and it was very uncharacteristic of him to go out and miss that one in the fourth quarter.”
The Panthers (6-7) have spent much of Davis’ latest tenure in Miami making history. They set a program record with nine wins in 2018. They beat the Miami Hurricanes for the first time last month. The win against the Hurricanes was their sixth of the season, sending them to a bowl game for a third straight year for the first time in school history. Just playing Saturday in Montgomery was historymaking and Camellia Bowl records fell throughout.
Still, FIU is now 1-2 in these three bowl games. The Panthers nearly erased a 14-point deficit in the final 19 minutes, but the missed field goal and one long catch by the most productive wide receiver in the country helped the Red Wolves (8-5) hang on for the eight-point win in Alabama.
Borregales’ miss gave Arkansas State the ball at its own 20-yard line and the Red Wolves raced right down the field for a five-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to push their lead back to eight with 3:37 left.
Most of the yards came on a single play. Arkansas State wide receiver Omar Bayless, who took over as the nation’s leader in receiving yards with a first-quarter touchdown catch, charged down the left sideline and quarterback Layne Hatcher hoisted a deep ball his way. The wideout got behind the Panthers’ defense and hauled in the long catch, then weaved his way through a pair of defensive backs for a 52-yard gain. Two plays later, Hatcher connected with wide receiver Jonathan Adams Jr. for a 13-yard touchdown to push the lead back to 34-26.
FIU’s best hope at a game-tying drive ended in just five plays. After the Panthers converted on fourth-and-5, quarterback James Morgan threw an interception to give the ball back to the Red Wolves with 2:22 remaining. They got the ball back again in the final minute and Morgan threw another interception with 19 seconds left to end the game.
Bayless finished with nine catches for a Camellia Bowlrecord 180 yards and one touchdown, and was the game’s most valuable player. Hatcher went 27 of 51 with an interception, but his 393 passing yards and four touchdowns were both records, too. For FIU, wide receiver Austin Maloney caught a record 10 passes for 178 yards and a touchdown and Borregales’ 52-yard field goal was the longest in the six-year history of the bowl. All six of those games have been decided by a touchdown or less.
Until one key takeaway in the third quarter, FIU was in danger of not keeping it close. A long drive by the Panthers was halted on fourth down with 5:07 left at Arkansas State’s 24-yard line. FIU was down 27-13 and needed to keep within striking distance of the Red Wolves, so Davis gambled on fourth-and-1 and failed.
Two plays later, the Panthers had the ball back. Arkansas State quarterback Layne Hatcher dropped back on second-and-10 and didn’t see the blind-side blitz coming from Stantley Thomas-Oliver III. The defensive back sacked the freshman and jarred the ball forward. Linebacker Sage Lewis pounced on the loose ball and FIU took over again at the Red Wolves’ 23. It only took two more plays for Morgan to fire a rope to Maloney in the left side of the end zone to cut Arkansas State’s lead to 27-20 with 3:48 left in the third quarter.
The Red Wolves had been in control the whole way. For the next four drives, their offense faltered. Starting with the fumble, Arkansas State managed just 79 yards on its next 20 plays. It punted on its next drive, threw an interception early in the fourth quarter and, leading by one, turned the ball over on downs at FIU’s 42.
Each of those three failed drives turned into field-goal attempts for Borregales. The kicker sunk a 48-yard kick with 38 seconds left in the third quarter to cut the Red Wolves’ lead to 27-23, then he crushed a 52-yard field goal after the interception by defensive back Rishard Dames to trim the deficit to 27-26 with 11:52 remaining.
The turnover on downs gave him an even easier opportunity, but he missed the 29-yard kick with 5:10 remaining to keep the Panthers down by one. A slow start ultimately cost them.
FIU dug an early hole with a lifeless first quarter. The Panthers picked up one first down on their first drive, then punted away to Arkansas State. The Red Wolves responded with an unusual 15-play, 80-yard march into the end zone.
FIU forced Arkansas State into four straight third-down situations and the Red Wolves converted each time. Hatcher started 0 of 7 on first and second downs, and went 3 of 3 for 29 yards — plus a 22-yard carry — on the four thirddown situations Arkansas State faced on the first drive. The quarterback led the Red Wolves all the way to the 4-yard line, then linked up with wide receiver Bayless on first-and-goal to put Arkansas State ahead 7-0.
“They have a great offense,” Lewis said. “We had a couple of chances to get off the field.”
Bayless, who entered Saturday with the second most receiving yards in the country, finished his final college game with nine for 180 yards and was the bowl’s most valuable player. He finishes his senior season with 1,653 receiving yards - 155 more than LSU Tigers All-American wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, whom he passed with his first-quarter touchdown catch.
The Panthers never sustained a drive of any substance in the first quarter. They went three-and-out after giving up the first touchdown, then had a four-play drive after forcing a three-and-out to give the all back to Arkansas State again. The Red Wolves’ boom-orbust passing attack put together a similar drive to their first. Three plays of at least 10 yards - plus two pass-interference penalties called against FIU - sent Arkansas State to a 14-0 lead after a 13-play, 90-yard drive, ending with a touchdown pass from Hatcher to wide receiver Kirk Merritt.
With 55 seconds left in the first quarter, the Red Wolves were outgaining the Panthers, 149-51.
By halftime, they stabilized. Morgan went into halftime with 141 passing yards after managing just 44 in the first quarter. Jones and fellow running back Napoleon Maxwell combined for 43 rushing yards and a touchdown. Kicker Jose Borregales hit two short field goals to send FIU into halftime trailing 20-13.
Too many drives ended with field goals, though, and Borregales finally cracked on his final kick.
“Probably the most disappointing thing is the inconsistency that we’ve had all season long,” Davis said. “There have been times that we’ve been spectacular the other games when we didn’t come out on top, a lot of it was self-inflicted type things.”