Pan­thers’ come­back bid goes wide right

Orlando Sentinel - - SPORTS - By David Wil­son

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.”

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