A former long-time Panther jumped up and down in joy as he jogged with the 2011 Panthers off the FIU Stadium field on Saturday night after FIU's monumental 17-10 win over UCF. This Panther witnessed the highs and lows of FIU football from the 0-12 season in 2006 to the momentum-turning Pizza Bowl win last season.
With a huge grin from ear to ear, he stopped at the entrance to the FIU locker room, said hello and belted out: "Isn't this great! Damn, it feels great to be a Panther! We've come so far, but this is just the start of something really big here. You watch."
Saturday at FIU Stadium was really big and not just the victory, which resulted in FIU receiving votes in both the AP and Coaches Polls today. The Panthers are 41st and received four votes in the AP poll. FIU is 38th and received 11 votes in the Coaches Poll.
In case you missed this photo, below, yesterday on Twitter: @petepelegrin. Three hours before kickoff, the tailgating rows of cars reached to the southern part of Tamiami Park -- about four to five times more the amount for a typical FIU game.
Every Saturday should be like this at FIU Stadium. You knew this was a huge game and, in my opinion, the most important game in the 9-year and two-game history of FIU football. Hell, the FIU/UCF game was apparently all the rage in the press box at another college football game about 45 minutes north of FIU as our good friend Ted Hutton wrote about.
The stage was set for the Panthers: an FIU Stadium record 20,205 fans (the record crowd for an FIU home game was against FAMU in 2004 at the Orange Bowl where 21,010 showed up); in-state rival and No. 27-ranked UCF was in town and the game was on ESPN3. All the elements were in place that with a win FIU would continue not only the rise of the Panthers' program, but the national momentum FIU built after beating Louisville last week. Despite most of the "experts" and all of ESPN's College Gameday going against FIU, the Panthers did not disappoint.
There were plenty of great things to talk about in the win over the Knights, but what stood out to me the most was how physical FIU played against a more mature and just as physical team. Writing about the Panthers since they started playing football in 2002, I cannot recall a more physical performance by FIU on both sides of the ball in the same game.
The UCF offensive line had an early advantage and running backs Ronnie Weaver and Brynn Harvey got their yards, but the Panthers did not buckle even after what could have been a deflating 18-play, 94-yard, 10:40 drive for the only UCF touchdown. Big credit goes to FIU strength and conditioning coaches Rod Moore and Ryan Horton. That FIU D is in shape and it showed.
UCF quarterback Jeffrey Godfrey is as slippery as a piece of ice, but the Panthers crushed him for six sacks and kept him in check. Linebackers Jordan Hunt (above left) and Winston Fraser, who were one-two in tackles on Saturday with 11 and 10, respectively, were ferocious hunting down Godfrey. Jordan had one sack and Winston had two sacks.
One significant reason why FIU played so well defensively was defensive back Jose Cheeseborough. Not only in coverage on a deep pass that would have been six if not for Cheese, but defending the run as well. Cheese (below) was flying all over the place. Credit to the FIU coaching staff for discovering Cheese, not the actual dairy product, but the cornerback, who walked-on two years ago from Jacksonville. As you might remember in a Scout Bowl post I had two years ago, Cheese was the MVP of that scrimmage with a fumble return for a TD and a pick. He was also clocked as one of the fastest Panthers this summer.
The FIU D-line continued their fine work with Tourek Williams, Greg Hickman, James Jones, Andre Pound, Jerrico Lee and Paul Crawford causing havoc. And how about Isame Faciane? The 290-pounder showed that the 45 pounds he put on did not affect his speed on that fumble return touchdown. Maybe Isame can be a short-yardage back on offense? Isame (right) looks like a BIG running back toting the pigskin.
Besides Cheese, the secondary came up big on blitzes with Tevin Blanchard, Sam Miller and Jonathan Cyprien recording sacks. Tevin's sack caused the fumble that gave Isame six.
Once again punter Josh Brisk punted really well averaging nearly 42 yards and hitting a 52-yarder to help with field position in this tightly-contested game. Colt Anderson was clutch with the fumble recovery that set up Darriet Perry's touchdown. DP tied Rashod Smith with 24 rushing TDs for the all-time FIU record. Colt then secured the onside kick late in the game to seal the FIU win.
Getting back to that physical theme in this post, kudos to the FIU offensive line, who paved the holes when the Panthers had to run the ball. UCF came in with the No. 2 defense in the nation -- that's No. 2 out of 120 teams -- and the Panthers offensive front went at the Knights, opened the holes and kept Wesley Carroll's jersey clean.
The key O-line blocking came when the Panthers started at their 6-yard line in the third quarter and leading 14-7. It was a chance for UCF to get some good field position if it could stop FIU. The FIU O-line and Kedrick Rhodes (left) had none of it gashing UCF with runs of 14, 11, 11 and 10 yards to get out of poor field position. Wayne Times's moves on a short pass from Wes also helped gaining 34 yards. Jack Griffin finished the drive with a field goal to make it 17-7.
Yes, this is looking like "the start of something really big here". While several of you good people mentioned to me after the game last night and tweeted about a 13-0 season. The Panthers will stick to their motto this season of going 1-0 each week. Once again, FIU is 1-0 and will try to be 1-0 for fourth straight week against Louisiana on Saturday.
**Thanks Alex J. Hernandez photos (Faciane celebration, Faciane running, Rhodes); thanks Sam Lewis photos (Cheeseborough, Hunt).