Coming into the game with the Miami-based FIU Panthers (1-3), the Central Michigan Chippewas (2-2) were 0-8 in games against teams hailing from the Sunshine State.
They looked well on the way to an 0-9 mark with 3:27 remaining in the third quarter, after a CMU drive, gifted by a targeting call on a punt return which resulted in a second FIU player getting ejected, stalled out rather ignominiously after three downs. Luke Elzinga lined up for the punt, but it was blocked before it could leave his foot, with FIU DB Rishard Dames housing his own block for a scoop-and-score to push the Panther lead to 27-10.
But somehow, some way, the CMU offense, which had found several ways to squander early redzone scoring opportunities despite dominating the statistics sheet, rallied under former Miami [FL] Carol City HS product Daniel Richardson to score 21 unanswered in the fourth quarter to secure a wild 31-27 victory over the upset-minded FIU.
It was a defensive-minded battle at the game’s start, with two exchanged punts before Central Michigan’s usually dependable kicker Marshall Meeder had an off-character miss straight-on for a 44-yard field goal attempt, which stymied an 11-play, 59 yard drive lasting over 4:15.
After another defensive three-and-out, CMU got the ball back, getting inside FIU territory before Jacob Sirmon threw an interception directly into the sticky-as-rice coverage by Rishard Dames. The CMU defense once again held true on a three-and-out, gifting the ball for the offense at their own 38. CMU marched down the field on four straight runs, gaining 32 yards, before Sirmon missed on a second-and-10 play. Lew Nichols ran for five yards on third down, setting up a fourth-and-five from the FIU 25. Sirmon gunned it towards Kalil Pimpleton, who was covered on the slot seam route, killing the drive.
CMU would finally break the scoreless tie on their next possession, with a Marshall Meeder field goal on the opposite end of the field from his miss, putting the score at 3-0 with 8:36 remaining in the first half.
FIU responded back with a fury, with Maryland transfer Max Bortenschlager finding Tyrese Chambers for two big gainer receptions, including a 45-yard strike to get into CMU territory and a 21-yard touchdown to put the Panthers ahead 7-3. A possession later, they repeated the feat with aplomb, as Bryce Singleton picked up 88 yards on two back-to-back receptions to set up a two-yard touchdown to TE Kamareon Williams to put FIU up 14-3.
It looked like CMU had once again stalled out on offense on the next possession, setting up for another Elzinga punt, before the ball bounced off the arm of the FIU returner, with the punt coverage team recovering the fumble. With a bit of renewed vigor after the replay reversed the previous call of the downed punt, CMU punched the ball in two plays later, with an 11-yard touchdown from Jacob Sirmon to Dallas Dixon to bring the score at halftime to 14-10.
The CMU defense once again brought home a three-and-out to open the third quarter, with the offense taking the first play of the ensuing drive 26 yards on the back of Lew Nichols. A false start and two Sirmon incompletions later, Marshall Meeder lined up for a 45-yard field goal, missing the attempt once again, much like in the first quarter.
FIU took advantage, with Tyrese Chambers getting targeted twice and hauling in 65 yards through the air to set up a five-yard touchdown run for D’vontae Price. The ensuing extra point attempt would turn out to be a key moment, as Devonni Reed came off the line and dived in front of the Chase Gabriel attempt to squander the opportunity, and put the score at 20-10.
An exchange of punts would give CMU the ball back— and set up the Rishard Dames punt return touchdown which would turn out to be a defining moment of the game.
Daniel Richardson, the 2020 starter for Central Michigan, had come in to the game on this drive, mounting a three-and-out in his first action. He replaced the seemingly benched Sirmon, and was clearly nervous, surrendering a fumble on a forward-facing throw attempt to give FIU the ball back on his second drive.
The CMU defense stood tall yet again, with a dropped interception to force third-and-long, and excellent coverage to force a punt.
That was all Richardson needed to get the ball back under him, going 6-of-7 for 86 yards to lead a 10 play, 80-yard touchdown drive in just 3:57 of clock, capping it with a 15-yard strike to Lew Nichols III on a wheel route out of the backfield to bring the score to 27-17 to start the fourth quarter.
After another three-and-out, CMU regained possession, marching down the field on an eight-play, 76 yard drive taking up just 1:53 before Richardson found JaCorey Sullivan in a mesh route to put the score at 27-24 in favor of FIU.
FIU started to sense the pressure, electing to go for a 28-yard field goal deep in CMU territory on fourth-and-nine. The Chase Gabriel attempt had no chance, starting wide to the right and ending even wider, carried by a furious wind.
CMU would hit a roadbump, taking the highly risky decision to go for it on fourth-and-six from the FIU 38. Richardson picked up a delay-of-game penalty, but instead of trotting on Elzinga for the punt, McElwain elected to keep the offense on the field, attempting a throw to Pimpleton on the left sideline, which fell incomplete.
The defense, as it had all day, stood tall and forced a three-and-out, with a massive pass break-up by Donte Kent to spark the start of a celebration. CMU took the ball at their 20 after the touchback and damned the torpedoes, with Richardson finding Pimpleton for 28 yards, Dixon for 18 yards and Nichols for seven yards before the 27-yard slant route touchdown from Dixon which would ultimately be the decider which put CMU up 31-27 with 1:18 remaining.
FIU would get one last chance to score a touchdown, but stalled out on the CMU 18, as Donte Kent, who had been picked on in coverage all game and nearly had an interception on the previous drive, tapped his toes into the endzone and caught the Bortschlager pass liek a receiver as the clock struck triple zeroes.
It was a 21-point unanswered run in the fourth quarter for CMU which erased a 17-point gap in just over 15 minutes of game time.
Richardson would finish the day 16-of-23 for 276 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions in relief of declared starter Jacob Sirmon, who posted a box score of 14-of-26 for 121 yards, one touchdown and an interception.
The Chippewas had to rely on the pass late in the game due to the game circumstances, but Lew Nichols still led all runners with 152 yards on 25 carries, and the Chippewas ran for 202 yards overall. Dallas Dixon (eight receptions, 127 yards, two touchdowns) and Kalil Pimpleton (eight receptions, 117 yards) led the Chippewa attack through the air, with CMU collecting 397 yards on the day.
For the Panthers, Max Bortschlager finished 20-of-38 for 395 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception. He found Tyrese Chambers (six receptions, 175 yards, one touchdown) and Bryce Singleton (six receptions, 173 yards) for 12 of those 20 completions, with Kamereon Williams notching a score on his only reception of the day.
RB D’vonte Price, who opted to return to FIU over declaring as a pro, was largely held in check by a vicious CMU run defense, with 50 carries and one touchdown on 17 yards.
CMU DB Alonzo McCoy led the Chips with seven tackles, including a tackle-for-loss, while DE Troy Hairston collected three tackles-for-loss and two sacks on the day. It was a busy day for CMU safeties and defensive backs, as Gage Kreski and Donte Kent finished second on the team with six tackles and a tackle-for-loss each. Three defensive linemen collected four tackles and a tackle-for-loss each, including John Wesley Whiteside, Tico Brown and Thomas Incoom.
Defensively for the Panthers, DB Richard Dames and DB Dorian Hall tied for the game lead with 11 tackles apiece, with Josh Valentine-Turner racking up nine tackles, including two tackles-for-loss of his own. DB Rishard Dames was the star of the show defensively for FIU, with five tackles (all solo,) a tackle-for-loss, a sack, a pass break-up, an interception and a blocked punt with a subsequent touchdown.
The Chippewas, who now stand at 2-2, will now get set to face the Miami RedHawks in Oxford, Ohio next Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time for their first conference (and cross-division) action.