Three games, three different starting quarterbacks, three losses.
That’s the scorecard for the FIU Panthers, who lost 19-10 in a non-conference game against the visiting Jacksonville State Gamecocks on Friday night.
FIU (0-3, 0-1) remains the only winless team in Conference USA.
Jacksonville State (3-1) entered Friday as a 10.5-point underdog and exited as the first FCS team to beat an FBS team this year.
FIU coach Butch Davis praised Jacksonville State, which controlled time of possession (42:16 to 17:44). Davis also criticized FIU’s inability to convert on its third downs (2 of 11 and also 0 for 1 on fourth down).
Beyond that, though, there was another factor.
“Between injuries and coronavirus, we are down 24 players, and we probably lost more tonight,” Davis said after Friday’s game. “It’s not like it’s just a sprained ankle. When you have guys having knee and shoulder surgeries, they’re not coming back [this season].”
The list of sick or injured FIU players, Davis said, includes left tackle D’Antne Demery, who is an NFL prospect; starting center Shane McGough; and running back Shaun Peterson, who had rushed for 117 yards in his most recent game.
In addition, FIU has been hit hard at wide receiver, where they are without veterans Shemar Thornton and JJ Holloman and freshman Teddy Richardson.
On Friday, FIU started redshirt freshman quarterback Stone Norton after Maryland transfer Max Bortenschlager had started the opener and Kaylan Wiggins took the reins in the Panthers’ second game.
Norton completed 5 of 14 for 66 yards and one touchdown on Friday. He lost one fumble. Bortenschlager completed 2-of-5 passes for 18 yards. Wiggins did not play.
Jacksonville State had its own issues at quarterback on Friday. Zerrick Cooper, a Clemson transfer who entered the game completing 67.1 percent of his passes this season, was sacked by Tyson Maeva on Jacksonville State’s third play from scrimmage.
Cooper, who limped off the field after the sack, lasted just two series. But backup QB Zion Webb took his place and led the Gamecocks to victory.
That happened because Jacksonville State rushed for 288 yards, gashing FIU’s defense all night. Josh Samuel ran for 163 yards, one touchdown and a 6.5 average. Uriah West ran for 116 yards and a 4.8 average.
In total yards, FIU was outgained 444 to 156.
FIU’s D’vonte Price, who entered Friday leading Conference USA in rushing yards per game (130.0) and average per carry (10.0), was shut down. He was held to nine carries and 43 yards (4.8 average).
“If we can’t have some success throwing the ball, we can’t get [Jacksonville State] out of their eight-man box,” Davis said. “It’s hard to run on that [defense].”
The teams played to a 3-3 tie in the first quarter, but Jacksonville State secured a 13-3 halftime lead.
On FIU’s second possession, Norton had a shot at an easy touchdown, but he couldn’t connect with Nate Jefferson, who was alone in the end zone. FIU settled for Chase Gabriel’s 37-yard field goal.
“[Jefferson] turned and twisted the wrong direction,” Davis said. “If he turns the other way, it’s a touchdown.”
That Gabriel field goal was FIU’s last advantage of the night. Jacksonville State countered with Alen Karajic’s 30-yard field goal and took a 10-3 lead on Samuel’s two-yard run. FIU had appeared to stop the Gamecocks on fourth down on the previous play, but an offsides penalty proved costly to the Panthers.
The Gamecocks stretched their lead to 13-3 on Karajic’s 39-yard field goal. That drive was kept alive by a 15-yard, hands-to-face penalty on FIU’s Jason Mercier.
Next, Jacksonville State, which had a first-and-goal at the FIU, got stopped and settled for a 20-yard Karajic field goal, giving the Gamecocks a 16-3 lead.
One of FIU’s few highlights came when Rishard Dames blocked Jacksonville State’s next field-goal try, a 32-yarder. That led to FIU’s only touchdown, a six-yard TD pass from Norton to Jefferson, who punctuated the score with some impressive dance moves.
That put FIU within striking distance, down 16-10 with 2:28 left in the third quarter.
However, Jacksonville State put the game away with a fourth-quarter drive that ended in a 23-yard Karajic field goal. That drive went 66 yards on 14 plays, burning 7:22 off the clock.
When the kick went through the uprights, Jacksonville State led 19-10 with just 2:35 left in the game, and FIU was done.