The FIU football team (0-1) opened the 2014 season with a tough, 14-12, loss to the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats on Saturday night. Senior Richard Leonard broke the school's single-game punt return yards record in the effort.
The Panthers' explosive cornerback collected 148 yards on five punt returns, while his 71-yard punt return late in the fourth quarter also stands as the fifth longest in school history. It's also the longest non-scoring return in FIU history. The Miami native shattered the previous record of 97 punt return yards, which was set in 2011 against Florida Atlantic by now-NFL standout, T.Y. Hilton. Leonard also had a 54-yard kick return in the second quarter.
On the defensive side of the ball, junior Denzell Perine set career highs in sacks (3) and tackles for loss (3/9.0). In all, the Panthers backline was able to accumulate 40 yards on 10 tackles for loss.
Senior safety Justin Halley's pass breakup on B-CU's opening drive moved the Boca Raton, Fla., native three pass break-ups shy of No. 2 all-time in program history. On the Wildcats' opening drive, Halley got in front of the B-CU receiver, slicing through the center of the field, forcing a fourth down. Junior Lars Koht collected FIU's first sack of the season on the following play.
B-CU broke a scoreless game with 11:26 to go in the second quarter. A one-yard touchdown run by the Wildcats' Michael Jones on first and goal gave the Wildcats' the an early 7-0 lead.
FIU responded with six points on back-to-back drives that resulted in a field goal. In his first drive under center for the Panthers, true freshman Alex McGough guided FIU 36 yards on six plays, setting sophomore Austin Taylor up for a 25-yard field goal.
Taylor's second 25-yarder came on the Panthers following drive. In a series that saw McGough connect 28 yards with junior tight end Ya'Keem Griner, FIU covered 53 yards on 10 plays and cut the deficit to one point. B-CU entered halftime with a 7-6 edge.
The Wildcats pulled ahead, 14-6, 3:34 into the fourth quarter, as the team converted a deep pass on third and nine. FIU responded with a four-play, seven-yard drive, resulting in a touchdown, following a 71-yard punt return from Leonard. The five-yard pass from McGough to junior T.J. Lowder was the first of the Tampa, Fla., native's career.
The score stood, 14-12, with 5:16 to go in the game. A failed last-second field goal attempt by the Panthers ended the contest.
Sophomore Jonnu Smith's two catches in the game moved the Ocala, Fla., native into second place in school history for catches by a tight end with 41.
McGough finished his first game with the Panthers 13-of-27 for 117 yards and one touchdown. His connection with Griner for 28 yards stands as a benchmark career-long for the rookie. In all, five true freshmen saw action in tonight's game (Shermarke Spence, Alex McGough, Anthony Wint, Alex Gardner, Dennis Turner)
FIU returns to action next weekend as the Panthers host Wagner. Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m. from Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium.