FIU falls short against No. 20 Louisville, 28-21
An extra inch or two here, one fewer mistake there, and things might have been much different for Florida International.
Instead, the Panthers lost their quarterback, another running back - and a chance to knock off No. 20 Louisville.
Teddy Bridgewater passed for two touchdowns and ran for another score in the return to his home city, and Louisville remained unbeaten by holding off FIU 28-21 on Saturday night. Senorise Perry rushed for 74 yards for the Cardinals (4-0), who trailed for the first time this season before rallying.
''Guys were throwing their bodies around and doing whatever it took to get guys on the ground to make plays,'' FIU coach Mario Cristobal said.
A year ago, that was enough for FIU to win by a touchdown in Louisville.
At home this season, the Panthers were a touchdown short.
Running back Darian Mallary and quarterback Jake Medlock both rushed for touchdowns before leaving with injuries for the Panthers (1-3), who open Sun Belt play next week at Louisiana-Lafayette. Mallary (concussion-type symptoms) and Medlock (foot) both left the game with injuries, and top FIU running back Kedrick Rhodes also missed the game with a right leg injury.
Jeremiah Harden ran for a career-best 102 yards on 20 carries for the Panthers.
A week ago, the Cardinals ran out to a 36-7 halftime lead before giving up 29 second-half points and barely hanging on to top North Carolina. This time, Louisville dug deep once again.
''We were able to finish,'' Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. ''Last week we didn't finish. This one, we were able to finish the game.''
Bridgewater came into the game 72 for 88 on the season with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Against FIU, he completed 19 of 36 passes - one more incompletion than he put up against Kentucky, Missouri State and North Carolina combined - for 194 yards and two interceptions.
''The win means a lot for this program,'' Bridgewater said. ''We're 4-0 now. We're happy about the win. It was very difficult. FIU came out today and played well on both sides of the ball.''
Medlock completed 10 of 16 passes for 116 yards. E.J. Hilliard - who took over at Miami Northwestern High, one of South Florida's fabled programs, when Bridgewater went to college - replaced Medlock at quarterback and was 9-for-10 passes for 82 yards and a touchdown for the Panthers.
''E.J came in and did a great job,'' Bridgewater said. ''I take my hat off to him.''
There was a group of people wearing shirts with Bridgewater's name on the back waiting in a downpour outside the stadium two hours before kickoff, mainly friends and family awaiting his return to Miami. Bridgewater was a standout at Miami Northwestern before eventually to Louisville.
He had gone 96 passes without an interception to start the year before he was picked off by FIU's Johnathan Cyprien late in the first quarter.
And the Panthers, who fell behind 7-0 early on Bridgewater's 3-yard pass to Nick Heuser, put together two sustained drives to take the lead. Mallary scored from 3 yards out to tie the game late in the first and cap a 13-play, 76-yard march, while Medlock scored from a yard out midway through the second quarter to end an 11-play, 82-yard drive for a 14-7 FIU lead.
So Louisville was playing its first road game of the year, and playing from behind for the first time all year.
Bridgewater ensured the run of firsts didn't include the first Cardinals' loss of 2012.
''We just knew it was a 60-minute game,'' Strong said. ''We had to continue to play well.''
Bridgewater responded. He connected with Andrell Smith on a 1-yard touchdown pass with 26 seconds left in the half, knotting the game at 14. And after FIU muffed a punt following the opening drive of the third quarter - the first in a long series of mistakes that plagued the Panthers in the second half - Louisville was back in business.
Perry picked up 40 yards on two carries, and Jeremy Wright went the final 6 yards to put the Cardinals ahead 21-14. FIU was stopped inches short on fourth-and-1 with 8:03 left in the third at the Louisville 10, turning the ball over and starting a possession that Bridgewater capped with a 1-yard plunge 6 seconds into the final quarter for a 28-14 edge.
FIU turned the ball over on downs again with 10 minutes left in Louisville territory after a fumble sent a play awry, yet closed within a touchdown when Jacob Younger caught a 4-yard pass from Hilliard.
''E.J., at first it's a lot to ask for a guy to go in there and play right away,'' Cristobal said. ''E.J. did some things that have to help us win football games.''
The Panthers had a chance to get the ball back down by seven with less than 5 minutes left, but T.J. Lowder was called for a personal foul after he ran into Louisville punter Ryan Johnson.
''A guy trying to make a play,'' Cristobal said.
The Cardinals ran out the clock, Bridgewater running for a key first down with just over a minute left to seal the outcome.