This time FIU finished the close one.
All offseason the Panthers talked about finishing games in 2015 after losing four games by three points or less in 2014. Mission accomplished in the season opener.
After Darrian Dyson blocked the potential game-winning 47-yard field goal by UCF's Matthew Wright to preserve a 15-14 win over the Knights, the Panthers spilled from their sideline on to the Bright House Networks Stadium field to rejoice in the program's first season-opening win since 2011. The Panthers opened the 2011 season with a home win against North Texas.
FIU rallied from a 14-3 deficit in the second half with touchdowns to open the third and fourth quarters.
FIU narrowed the UCF lead to 14-9 with an 8-yard run by Alex Gardner on its first possession of the second half. The Panthers went 82 yards for their first touchdown in 2015. FIU went for the two-point conversion butAlex McGough's pass was incomplete.
The drive which took 6:19 featured the debut of freshman Anthony Jones, who gained 26 yards on his first collegiate rush on the second play of the drive. Later Alex McGough hit Jones for a 15-yard completion and found Jonnu Smith for 17 yards to the UCF 3. Smith extended his consecutive pass catching streak to 25 games with a 3-yard reception in the first quarter.
Much like it opened the third quarter with six, FIU did the same to start the final 15 minutes. The Panthers marched 80 yards to paydirt to take a 15-14 lead.
Senior tight end Ya'Keem Griner played a crucial part in the go-ahead touchdown drive. Griner caught a career-long 46-yard pass early in the drive. Griner was also the recipient of a fortuitous bounce when he grabbed the go-ahead touchdown after the pass intended for Thomas Owens was batted in the air. The 4-yard touchdown vaulted the Panthers on top.
Owens caught a career-high 11 passes for 78 yards to lead the FIU receivers. McGough established career-highs of 29 completions in 38 attempts for 260 yards and a touchdown. Gardner led FIU rushing with 75 yards and a touchdown.
FIU's nationally-ranked defense last season continued its steady course Thursday night in Orlando keeping the Panthers in the game while the offense found its footing. The FIU defense held the UCF offense to less than 300 total yards (295 yards) and recorded two sacks by its all-conference defensive ends Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine. The FIU D also had eight tackles for loss. Treyon Williams (11 tackles),Richard Leonard (10) and Anthony Wint (10) all had double-digit tackles. Williams established a new career-high in tackles.
The Panthers scored the first points of any FBS team this college football season when Austin Taylor hit a 28-yard field goal with 6:10 left in the first quarter to give FIU a 3-0 lead. FIU drove 76 yards to the UCF 11, highlighted by a 27-yard catch and run by Gardner on a pass from McGough.
The Knights answered near the end of the first quarter after an FIU fumble at its own 31. Justin Holman threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Akins to put UCF on top 7-3.
Holman and Akins connected again to fuel the Knights' second touchdown. The duo hooked up for 20 yards to the FIU 36. Two plays later, Holman found Akins again for a 33-yard score to send UCF into the locker room with the 14-3 edge.
FIU continues on the road next week with its first-ever meeting against Indiana. The Panthers and Hoosiers kickoff at 8 p.m. next Saturday, Sept. 12 from Bloomington, Ind.