Early lead vanishes as struggling FIU loses to Western Kentucky and falls to 1-6

·4 min read

Barring a miracle, FIU’s plans this December won’t include a bowl game.

The Panthers fell short for the 13th time in past 14 games on Saturday night, blowing an early lead in a 34-19 loss to visiting Western Kentucky University.

FIU (1-6 overall, 0-3 Conference USA) will need to win its five remaining games to become bowl eligible, and that appears highly unlikely since the Panthers haven’t beaten an FBS team since Nov. 23, 2019.

Saturday’s loss to WKU (3-4, 2-2) came exactly 23 months after FIU’s aforementioned upset victory over Miami.

FIU had its moments on Saturday, most notably Max Bortenschlager’s 75-yard touchdown pass to Randall St. Felix.

Panthers running back D’vonte Price gained 86 yards on 14 carries. Bortenschlager completed 15-of-32 passes for 186 yards with the one touchdown and no interceptions.

St. Felix, in his best performance since transferring to FIU from the University of South Florida, had five catches for 104 yards and the one TD.

In addition, FIU punter Tommy Heatherly completed a 13-yard pass to Tommy Zozus, earning a first down on a fourth-and-9 trick play.

But it wasn’t enough, especially because FIU was held scoreless in the second half until a TD with the backups in the game with 1:39 left in the fourth quarter.

WKU quarterback Bailey Zappe completed 39-of-49 passes for 384 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, leading the Hilltoppers to their second straight road win.

Jerreth Sterns, who had 14 catches for 116 yards and two TDs, was Zappe’s favorite target.

The game was in doubt early as there were three lead changes before WKU went into its locker room on top, 17-12.

FIU took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards on 12 plays, scoring on Bortenschlager’s 1-yard quarterback sneak. Chase Gabriel’s extra-point try was blocked by Mike Allen.

Later in the first quarter, WKU was driving and had a first down at the FIU 26 on a 14-yard catch by Malachi Corley. But FIU’s Joe Perkins forced a Corley fumble, and the ball was recovered by Panthers defensive back Andrew Volmar, a freshman from American Heritage. Earlier in the first half, Volmar also had a sack that forced a punt.

FIU’s defense — after forcing three punts and that turnover — finally buckled with 7:20 left in the second quarter as WKU’s Adam Cofield ran 8 yards for a touchdown. The extra point was good, giving WKU a 7-6 lead.

The Panthers, though, scored on their play from a scrimmage. Bortenschlager used a pump fake to clear out the WKU cornerback before lofting the ball to St. Felix. With no deep help from a safety, that became a 75-yard TD.

However, FIU’s lead remained at 12-7 when its two-point conversion failed. Allen, who had the block on the first extra-point try, sacked Bortenschlager.

WKU then got a first down inside FIU’s 1-yard line on a 17-yard reception by Cofield. FIU’s defense came up big with three consecutive stops, including on second down by Pierce Withers and on third by Rishard Dames.

That led to WKU settling for Brayden Narveson’s 22-yard field goal, cutting FIU’s lead to 12-10 with 1:27 left in the first half.

WKU then forced a punt and got the ball at its own 30 with just 49 seconds left. Five plays later, WKU was in the end zone with a 17-12 lead as Zappe used his own pump fake to get Mitchell Tinsley free on a 32-yard TD pass down the left sideline.

Since there were 17 seconds left in the half, that meant WKU needed just 32 seconds to travel 70 yards for its go-ahead score.

WKU took the second-half kickoff and drove 75 yards for a touchdown and a 24-12 lead. The capper was a 20-yard pass to Sterns, who broke a seemingly sure tackle on the third-and-4 play.

The Hilltoppers wore down FIU with its quick-tempo attack in the fourth quarter, taking a 31-12 lead on Zappe’s 2-yard swing pass to Sterns.

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