By Aaron Williams–
Florida International University senior wide receiver T.Y. Hilton had a career night in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, netting 201 receiving yards and scoring two touchdowns that helped the FIU Panthers overcome the University of Louisville Cardinals 24-17.
“The thing you can’t do is give up the big plays,” said Louisville head coach Charlie Strong in comments he made to the media following the Friday night loss. “And we gave up two big plays where you know where the receiver is and knowing how explosive T.Y. Hilton is.”
With Louisville’s hopes of making a comeback hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter, the Cards lined up for a fourth and one situation on the Panther seven yard line with the score 24-10, but came up short when sophomore running back Jeremy Wright was stopped in the backfield by the quick penetration of the FIU defensive line. Wright was held to only 62 yards gained for the contest.
The Cards defense took the field with grim determination with 9:45 left to play, knowing that allowing a score or long exhausting drive could surrender the game to the Panthers. The defense held strong, forcing FIU to a three and out that gave Louisville’s comeback effort once last gasp of air, but the 26-yard touchdown pass to freshman receiver DeVante Parker that put the Cardinals just one touchdown away from tying the Panthers would come too late, with just under two minutes to play. Louisville would go on to let the opportunity of being 2-0 going into Commonwealth Stadium next weekend to face Kentucky slip through their fingers.
For the Cards, the troubles began early. Junior quarterback Will Stein looked a bit shaky in the first quarter, throwing an interception to Panther linebacker Winston Frasier that was returned 71 yards for the first touchdown of the competition. Stein would go on to throw for 349 yards and two touchdowns on 30-43 passing, but would spend the majority of the game scrambling away from the Panthers’ prowling defense that seemed to break through Louisville’s offensive line nearly every possession. FIU would record six sacks on Stein before the game was over.
Louisville found its offense late in the first quarter when Stein connected with senior tight end Josh Chichester to move the chains tantalizingly close to the red zone. Chichester finished the game with 111 receiving yards and seemed to have a knack for breaking out of coverage when Stein was under pressure.
“Chi played really well, I was really happy for him. He is getting open and I was finding him,” said quarterback Will Stein in a postgame interview. “I think all the receivers played really well tonight. We threw for a lot of yards; we have to better on first downs and getting ourselves in manageable situations.”
Running back Jeremy Wright, after finishing the first quarter with five carries for 35 yards, began the second quarter much the same with two consecutive four-yard runs that put the Cards in range for a field goal by senior kicker Chris Philpott at the 13:35 mark in the second quarter.
However, Florida International would come back with a vengeance at the 12:06 mark in the same quarter. The Panthers struck lightning fast on a three play, 82 yards scoring drive that lasted only a 1:29 and ended with FIU senior quarterback Wes Carroll connecting with senior wide receiver T.Y. Hilton on a 71-yard pass for a touchdown. Carroll found Hilton once more in the second, airing the ball out again for a deep pass to the senior receiver who left the Cards defense in the dust for an 83-yard completion and touchdown that increased the Panther lead to 21-3. T.Y. Hilton would finish the game with 201 receiving yards, a new Florida International record for most receiving yards in a single game.
After a woeful two quarters of offensive play, the Cards finally tasted the end zone late in the first half. Stein began to find his rhythm towards the end of the second quarter when he connected with senior tight end Josh Chichester again.
From there, the junior quarterback marched the Cards down the field on a 12 play, 89 yard drive that culminated in a six-yard touchdown pass from Stein to freshman receiver Michaelee Harris. The drive also included 13 yards rushed by Stein on consecutive plays.
“The first half is what really got us,” Coach Strong told the media. “We got in a hole in the first half and weren’t able to bounce back.”
It would prove impossible to bounce back the second half as well, as the Cards were repeatedly forced to a three and out by the Panther defense. The haunts of the first half seemed to be revisiting the Cards when Carroll found Hilton once again on a 22-yard pass early in the third quarter. The Panthers continued their advance downfield until they met the resistance of several Cardinal tackles led by sophomore linebacker Preston Brown who stopped senior Panther running back Darriet Perry short of the first down and caused a fourth and one to arise. Following a timeout, FIU opted for a field goal that put them safely ahead fourteen points and out of range of the Cards for the remainder of the game.
Despite the loss, the Cards seem to be resolute in their preparation for next week against the Wildcats.
“We are going to take this loss and learn from it,” said sophomore safety Hakeem Smith after the game. “It’s just going to push us and make us work harder.”
Senior linebacker Dexter Heyman knows where corrections must be made.
“To win, to beat Kentucky, our defense has to outplay their defense,” said Heyman. “We have to stop the big plays.”
Photo: Michael Baldwin/The Louisville Cardinal