NASSAU, Bahamas – FIU erased a 10-0 first-quarter deficit by halftime, and the Panthers held on for a 35-32 victory over Toledo in the 2018 Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl on Friday afternoon at Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium.
The bowl game was played in a strong tropical breeze between 15-20 MPH and near-perfect field conditions at kickoff after early-morning storms blew over New Providence Island several hours before game time.
FIU quarterback Christian Alexander was named the Offensive Player of the Game, going 17-for-26 through the air for 209 yards and a touchdown. He also added 87 yards on 10 carries, which set the bowl’s record for a quarterback.
Alexander was announced as the starter at quarterback two days prior to the bowl for James Morgan, the Conference USA Newcomer of the Year, who could not play due to a sore shoulder.
Panther running back Anthony Jones carried the ball 15 times for 92 yards and three touchdowns to lead FIU in rushing. The Panthers had a 236-124 advantage in rushing yards, as teams with more yards on the ground are 5-0 in the bowl’s history.
FIU linebacker Edwin Freeman was selected as the Defensive Player of the Game as he led the Panthers with eight tackles, including five unassisted stops.
FIU (9-4) closed the season with a school-record nine victories.
“It’s spectacular to have won this game. These kids, the things that our entire football team has done for the last 10 or 11 months have been amazing,” said FIU head coach Butch Davis. “The hard work, the dedication, the unselfishness – you don’t win nine football games and set a school record for the most victories or win a bowl game without an awful lot of great plays.”
The Toledo (7-6) scoring offense, ranked 11th in FBS in points per game prior to bowl season, also flexed its muscles at times, led by quarterback Eli Peters, who threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns and was the Rockets’ rushing leader with five carries for 43 yards. Jon’Vea Johnson caught two of the touchdown tosses, while Diontae Johnson had six receptions for 98 yards and a score.
With FIU’s victory, Conference USA holds a 3-2 advantage over the Mid-American Conference in Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl history.
Toledo stole the momentum right away when Terrance Taylor forced a fumble on the opening kickoff that was recovered and returned to the FIU 3 by DeDarallo Blue. Two plays later, Bryant Koback powered three yards for a touchdown to give the Rockets a 7-0 lead just 23 seconds into the game – the fastest touchdown in the bowl’s history.
After forcing back-to-back punts by the Panther offense, Toledo extended its lead to 10-0 on a 28-yard field goal by Jameson Vest with 12 seconds left in the first quarter. The field goal was the culmination of a 12-play, 52-yard drive.
The second quarter belonged to FIU, as the Panthers took a 14-10 lead into halftime.
FIU put together a pair of lengthy touchdown drives to grab the lead. The Panthers got on the board on an eight-play, 75-yard drive capped off by a six-yard run by Jones to cut Toledo’s lead to 10-7 with 12:44 left in the half.
Alexander then connected on a 36-yard touchdown pass to Sterling Palmer that ended a seven-play, 96-yard scoring drive, the longest scoring drive by yards in the bowl’s history.
The Rockets marched down the field on their first possession of the third quarter and scored on a Peters seven-yard touchdown pass to Jon’Vea Johnson for Toledo’s final lead of the game at 17-14.
Jones scored his second touchdown of the day on a 30-yard sprint with 3:47 left in the third quarter to put FIU up for good at 21-17.
The fourth quarter saw plenty of scoring as FIU worked to hold off a Toledo comeback. Maurice Alexander extended the Panthers’ lead to 28-17 with 11:12 remaining in the game on a 16-yard touchdown run.
Toledo made it interesting midway through the final quarter by closing the gap to 28-25 with 7:21 to go. Peters connected with Diontae Johnson for a 2-yard touchdown and then followed it up by converting a 2-point conversion on a pass from Peters to Cody Thompson.
The Panthers iced the game with a drive that took 6:40 off the clock. Jones’ third touchdown run of the game, an 18-yard scamper with 41 seconds to play, pushed the FIU advantage to 35-25. The touchdown was three plays after Christian Alexander completed a huge fourth-and-6 pass to Tony Gaiter IV that kept the drive going.
Peters hit Jon’Vea Johnson for a 43-yard TD pass with two seconds left for Toledo to cut the margin to 35-32 and provide a few anxious moments, but the Panthers recovered the ensuing onside kick to seal the victory, and FIU raised the Prime Minister’s Trophy as a bowl champion for the first time since 2010.
Maurice Alexander led the Panthers with five catches for 30 yards, while Gaiter had four catches for 52 yards.
Linebacker Richard Olekanma and defensive end Tuzar Skipper each had eight total tackles to lead Toledo.