FIU drops WKU in final game of season

Sam Porter

 At the conclusion of the regular season, WKU’s postseason hopes are out of their own hands. The Hilltoppers fell 41-17 to Florida International on Friday night to finish the season 6-6 (4-4 C-USA).

The 24-point loss was the worst C-USA loss for the Hilltoppers since 2014. The Hilltoppers led 17-13 in the third quarter after redshirt senior quarterback Mike White found senior wide receiver Nacarius Fant for a 14-yard touchdown strike.

Then, the Hilltoppers turned it over twice and gave up 28 unanswered points as FIU cruised to a 41-17 victory to ensure themselves a C-USA bowl game. 

After grabbing its sixth win last week, WKU achieved bowl eligibility but needed to win tonight to guarantee a bowl game with a C-USA tie in. Depending on how many teams qualify for bowl eligibility across the country, the Hilltoppers must wait until all of the conference tie-in games are accounted for to see where they will play, if anywhere. 

“It was in our own hands before the game,” White said about WKU’s bowl hopes in a radio post game interview. “Now, hopefully we can get another one because I’m not ready for this to be over with my team and my brothers. It all hit me in the locker room, just the possibility of this being my last time suiting up in a WKU uniform is hard to swallow.”

With the game tied 3-3, the WKU offense made the game’s first big play. White found redshirt sophomore wide receiver Lucky Jackson for a 28-yard touchdown down the left sideline to give WKU a 10-3 lead. The Golden Panthers would answer, as FIU running back Shawndarrius Phillips’ 4-yard touchdown would cap off a 10-play, 77-yard drive and tie the game. FIU would add one more field goal to take a 13-10 lead into the half.

WKU would catch a major break early in the third quarter. White threw a pick six that appeared to give FIU a 2-score lead, but a roughing the passer penalty negated the touchdown and the turnover. Shortly after, White found Fant for a 14- yard score to give WKU a 17-13 lead. White finished the game 30-49 for 355 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions and will finish the regular season as the C-USA’s leader in passing yards.         

“It doesn’t mean anything when you lose,” White said of his performance. “I’d trade in those stats for a win any day of the week. Sometimes, balls don’t bounce our way or some of the mistakes we make are too far to overcome. Hopefully, the young guys learn from this year and I know the seniors left their mark on this class.”

On third and long, FIU quarterback Alex McGough found Darrius Scott for a 42-yard touchdown to give the Golden Panthers the lead. McGough avoided a sack by redshirt sophomore linebacker Ben Holt, who got his hands on McGough’s feet, and found Scott for the go-ahead touchdown. FIU finished the game 7-14 on third downs.

“We couldn’t get off the field on third down,” redshirt junior linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe said. “In the first half, we were able to get away with it. But the second half really hurt us. We just have to get better at getting off the field. Simple as that.”

On the ensuing possession, White found Fant for what appeared to be a first down. However, Fant fumbled the football after taking a shot from an FIU defender and the Golden Panthers recovered.

Shortly after, Phillips ran for his second touchdown of the night to give FIU a 27-17 lead. White and company drove close to midfield before being faced with 4th down.

Redshirt junior punter Jake Collins was asked to pin FIU into their own territory. FIU brought virtually no pressure, and it appeared Collins thought about trying to run for the first down instead. Once an FIU defender got close to him, Collins avoided the tackle but fumbled the football and FIU’s D’vonte Price returned the fumble 38 yards for a touchdown that completely flipped the momentum to the Golden Panthers. 

FIU would add one more touchdown and WKU failed to put any more points on the board as the Golden Panthers won 41-17 on their senior night. The loss drops the Hilltoppers to a fourth-place finish in the C-USA East Division. Bowl game announcements take place on Sunday, December 3, where WKU will learn if they will be granted a 13th game. 

“As of right now it’s not up to us,” Iyiegbuniwe said. “With us being 6-6 we’ll see. We don’t know where we stand right now. Only time will tell.”