LAS CRUCES — (Las Cruces) Fresh off its first win of the season, a 45-20 verdict a week ago over Hawaii, New Mexico State had to be licking its chops awaiting 14.5-point underdog Florida International.
But it would become apparent early Saturday evening that the 2-2 Panthers, 73-0 losers just a week ago at Western Kentucky, had brought some Florida fury from the Sunshine State. FIU stormed out to a 14-point lead by half, coasting to a 21-7 victory in front of an announced 10,423 patrons at Aggie Memorial Stadium.
NMSU (1-5) beat Hawaii 45-26 a week earlier, but fell to 1-5 with Saturday’s loss. The Aggies haven’t won consecutive games since bettering Incarnate Word 41-28 followed by a Nov 23, 2019, 44-35 win over UTEP.
The Aggies, in the midst of a four-game homestand, take the week off before facing New Mexico Oct. 15.
“Everybody wants to look at those scores (last week) and say, ‘Well, they got beat by so-and-so,'” Aggies head coach Jerry Kill said after the dramatic reversals of fortune for both teams. “We ain’t good enough to do that with anybody. … So, lesson learned. Very hardly.”
FIU cranked out a 12 play, 89-yard drive the second time it touched the football to open the scoring. Slick-handling sophomore quarterback Grayson James (13-of-19 passing, 175 yards, 3 TDs; 18 for 43 rushing) accounted for 22 yards himself on four carries. Five-foot-9 running back Lexington Joseph (14-for-80 rushing) amassing most of the rest, racing 32 yards. That set up Tyrone Chambers’ (game best 6-for-72 yards) four-yard scoring catch two plays later to put the Panthers up 7-0. It was their first lead since their 38-37 victory over Bryant on Sept. 1.
The Aggies answered, the air game providing all the big plays in a 75-yard drive. Receiver Justice Powers (3 for 43 yards receiving) converted a third-and-10 with an 11-yard slant route. Tight end Eric Marsh picked up a fourth-and-4 with a 10 yard catch of his own, sandwiching Bryce Childress’ (team high 5 catches, 43 yards) 25-yard reception. FIU defensive back Demetrius Hill’s end zone pass interference penalty on Josh Brady put the ball at the 2, big back Star Thomas (9 carries, 21 yards) pounding across from there a play later to tie 7-7.
FIU would be back on top just 3 minutes, 20 seconds later, Jalen Bracey carrying a James flip in the flat 22 yards down the left sideline to go up 14-7 with 9:38 left in the half.
The flats would prove profitable yet once more for the Panthers, Joseph taking a toss 60 yards down the right sideline for a 21-7 edge heading to the locker room.
“We expected them to really pass the ball more,” Aggie senior outside linebacker Chris Ojoh said. “They’re 80 percent more passing than anything, especially from the last game film. So they really switched it up, had a good game plan coming in.”
The New Mexico State defense gave its offense a chance, shutting out FIU in the second half. Cornerback Syrus Dumas (team best 10 tackles) made a stop behind the line of scrimmage to end FIU’s first drive of the third quarter, Ojo’s third down sack a possession later directly preceding Panthers kicker Chase Gabriel’s 26-yard missed field goal wide left.
But the NMSU offense, skippered in the second half by junior Diego Pavia (8-of-14 passing, 85 yards), could do no better than a missed Carson Zilmer 44-yard field goal attempt over the final 30 minutes.
“Hats off to FIU. They had a great game plan, executed it well,” said freshman starting quarterback Gavin Frakes (5-of-13 passing, 54 yards). “They stopped our run really well. I wasn’t throwing the ball well. Couldn’t get much goin’.”
The night got off to a promising start for the Aggies defense, interior lineman Donovan King recording back-to-back sacks of James on the second and third snaps of the contest for a lightning fast three-and-out.
FIU’s defense, which entered the night allowing a whopping 537.3 yards of total offense, was able to sustain its intensity, limiting NMSU to 77 yards rushing and 139 through the air for a combined 216 yards.
“Last week was extremely hard; I mean the game was a nightmare,” victorious FIU head coach Mike MacIntyre said of the Western Kentucky blowout. “(The players) had to work through that and stay positive and they did. And then with the hurricane and everything, which has affected everybody………The Miami Dolphins and Miami Hurricanes allowing us to come over there and practice, we could not have been able to win tonight if we couldn’t practice all week.”
A good week of practice didn’t transfer nearly as well for NMSU.
“We got our butt kicked in all three phases of the football game,” Kill said. “(The Panthers) deserve all the credit, they did it. Not much else to say.”