FIU finishes season on a losing note, but there are reasons for optimism for 2023

D.A. Varela/dvarela@miamiherald.com

Glass half full: FIU’s football season, which ended Saturday with a 33-28 loss to visiting Middle Tennessee State, was a step forward.

The Panthers went from 1-11 last season under previous coach Butch Davis to 4-8 with Mike MacIntyre at the controls. If FIU improves by three games again next year, that would mean a bowl team at 7-5.

Glass half empty: There are multiple FIU roster holes, especially considering that the transfer portal leaves the return of nearly every player uncertain.

The defense struggled all season. The offensive line is model thin. Wide receiver Tyrese Chambers, the team’s best player, is likely off to try the NFL. And the quarterback position is still in doubt.

In Saturday’s loss, FIU fell behind 20-0 in the second quarter and rallied to take a 28-27 lead with 12:51 left in the fourth before losing the game on a pick-six with just 2:50 remaining.

Here are your five takeaways:

1. “Gray” is black and blue: Panthers quarterback Grayson James missed the game due to a thigh bruise.

He practiced in the week prior to Saturday’s game, although not at full speed.

“I thought he was going to be able to go,” MacIntyre said. “But [the injury] got worse on Thursday and Friday, and he couldn’t push off.”

It wasn’t until four hours before Saturday’s kickoff that James was ruled out.

2. QB competition: James’ injury opened the proverbial door for Haden Carlson to make his first career start.

Carlson, in his third season at FIU, completed 29 of 52 passes for 414 yards, four touchdowns … and four interceptions.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity,” Carlson said. “I have a lot to improve — all those turnovers.

“We were winning 28-27. I have to put the game away right there. [Instead], I throw a pick.”

The pick-six happened when Middle Tennessee sent six pass rushers, pressuring Carlson.

But Carlson also had several highly impressive throws. For example, on a 6-yard TD pass to Rivaldo Fairweather in the second quarter, Carlson fired a hard pass in between two defenders in tight coverage.

Then, in the third, Carlson fired a bullet over one defender and in between two others, completing his toss for a 21-yard TD to Josiah Miamen.

Carlson is the first FIU quarterback to throw four or more TD passes in his first career start.

3. TDs for tight ends: All four of Carlson’s touchdown passes went to tight ends.

Fairweather caught eight passes for 152 yards and three TDs. Those were career highs in all three categories. Those three TD receptions tied a program record.

Miamen caught seven passes for 65 yards and one score.

MacIntyre said he normally uses a one-tight end formation but went with two much more often on Saturday.

He did it for a variety of reasons. First, as an element of surprise but also because Chambers was out injured, and the Fairweather-Miamen duo offers blocking as well as enough speed to get open in the passing game.

Fairweather made the plan look great.

“I always have the mentality,” Fairweather said, “to never let the first or second guy tackle me.”

4. Prep connection: Carlson and wide receiver Dean Patterson were high school teammates at Tampa Steinbrenner, and it showed.

Patterson on Saturday had a career-high five catches for 100 yards, which was also a career best. In fact, in his past five games, Patterson had a total of just one catch for 15 yards.

Carlson fought back tears when asked about Patterson, who arrived at FIU as a walk on, battled his way to a scholarship and methodically moved his way up the depth chart.

“That’s my boy,” Carlson said. “He made so many plays. I’m so happy for him.”

5. For the defense: The Panthers allowed an average of 37.2 points per game this year, ranking FIU No. 127 out of 131 college football teams.

FIU had issues stopping the run (4.7 yards per rush) and the pass (allowed a 65.8 percent completion rate). Per game, FIU allowed 260 yards passing and 192 yards rushing.