Months after being shot and missing seven games, Florida International University (FIU) Panthers’ running back Anthony Jones had a monster game on the ground, helping his team beat the University of Toledo Rockets, 35-32, to win the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl (MWBB) on Friday afternoon at the Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium.
Jones rushed for 92 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Panthers past the Rockets. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry, with his longest run being a 30-yard touchdown with 3:47 left in the third quarter. That score gave his team a 21-17 lead, and they never trailed again.
Jones was asked how he was able to deal with the adversity that he faced.
He said: “I just want to thank God, first and foremost. I want to thank my brothers and Head Coach Butch Davis. Through everything, my coach, my brothers, the whole university, everyone was behind me. I couldn’t ask for a better support staff than what I got at FIU.”
The Panthers represented Conference USA (C-USA) and Rockets represented the Mid-American Conference (MAC).
Early in the game, the Rockets stormed ahead. On the opening play, the Panthers’ kick returner fumbled the ball. That set up a touchdown for the Rockets, as they took a 7-0 lead. Rockets running back Bryant Koback had the early touchdown run, from three yards out.
With 12 seconds remaining in the first quarter, Rockets kicker Jameson Vest kicked a good field goal to put his team ahead 10-0.
At the end of the first quarter, Rockets’ quarterback Eli Peters had 89 yards passing.
As the game progressed, the Panthers’ offense got in rhythm.
Panthers back-up quarterback Christian Alexander was named the offensive most valuable player (MVP) of the game. He started the game in place of the injured James Morgan.
Alexander passed for just 15 yards in the quarter, but came alive in the second quarter. The Panthers got on the scoreboard with a four-yard rushing touchdown by Jones in the second quarter. The Panthers marched 75 yards down the field in eight plays, taking up 2:28 on the clock.
Panthers Head Coach Davis said he learned from last year, when his number one quarterback went down with an injury, so he made sure his back-up had time under center in practices and games this year.
“It was a huge benefit for him that he took the entire 15 practices in the spring as the number one quarterback. That helped him know that ‘I can step into this huddle and lead this team’. We made a commitment that no matter what happened during the course of the season, especially through four games, we were rotating him in, no matter what the score was or where the ball was. We truly believe in Christian,” Davis said.
Alexander continued to build up momentum for his team in the second quarter. He had a huge 41-yard run for his team to take them into Rockets territory. Two plays after that run, he hit tight end Sterling Palmer on a 36-yard touchdown pass to give the Panthers their first lead of the game, 14-10. That score came with 2:57 to go in the first half.
Alexander looked very comfortable in the second quarter, passing for 78 yards and running for 48. He said he received help from Morgan and his other teammates to help him prepare for the game in the starting role.
“I found out in the preparation for the bowl game when we found out what James’ injury was. I knew I had to carry the reins. James helped me along the way. Obviously, he started all season long so he gave me pointers here and there, today especially. He showed me things he saw, things like that. I couldn’t have done it without my brothers,” Alexander said.
At the end of the half, the Panthers were ahead 14—10, thanks to 14 huge points in the second quarter.
The Rockets opened the second half the way they began the first half — with a touchdown.
Peters opened the scoring drive with a 15-yard pass to wide receiver Cody Thompson, and the drive ended with a seven-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jon’Vea Johnson. That gave them a 17—14 lead.
By the end of the third quarter, the Panthers went back up 21—17 to set up an entertaining fourth quarter.
On the first drive of the fourth quarter, Alexander used a huge 23-yard pass to Palmer to get them into Rockets’ territory.
On a 16-yard touchdown run by Maurice Alexander, the Panthers extended their lead to 28—17.
One key statistic that should not be overlooked is that the Rockets high-powered offense converted on only two of 11 third down attempts. Davis gave the credit to his defensive coordinator, Brent Guy.
“Going 2-of-11 is a big thing. A lot of the calls we made on third down were really, really good. We mixed it up. Our defensive coordinator [Brent Guy] did a good job of mixing in three-man line and four-man line, some man-to-man stuff, some blitzes and some pressures. Getting them off the field was huge,” Davis said.
After the Panthers increased the lead to 11, the Rockets scored on their next drive as Peters connected with wide receiver Diontae Johnson for a touchdown.
Rockets Head Coach Jason Candle elected to go for the two-point conversion, and they were successful to come within three points, 28—25. Thompson caught the conversion from Peters.
The Panthers had the ball with 7:21 remaining in the game, and chose to keep the ball on the ground, eating up as much clock as possible.
One of the biggest plays of the game happened on fourth down and six, when Coach Davis chose to go for it. Christian Alexander made a six-yard pass to Tony Gaitor to get the key first down.
Jones had three runs afterwards, climaxed with an 18-yard touchdown run with 41 seconds left on the clock. After a good extra-point, the Panthers went ahead 35—25. That made the game a two-score game and started to shut the door on the Rockets.
On that drive, Candle summed it up by saying his guys didn’t tackle.
“We didn’t tackle them. I’d have to go back and look at the video tape and tell you exactly what went wrong. You pick up a fourth down there and you’re getting stops, but we just don’t get the guy tackled and get him on the ground. There it is. That’s the story,” Candle said.
The Rockets managed to score 39 seconds after Peters found Jon’Vea Johnson in the endzone with two Panthers’ defenders draped on him. The extra-point made the score 35—32 in the Panthers’ favor, but there was only 12 seconds remaining on the clock. The Rockets tried an on-side kick, but the Panthers recovered it to seal the win.
The Panthers’ bench started the celebration as they prevailed to capture the 2018 Prime Minister’s Trophy, given to the winner of the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl game.
Christian Alexander finished with 209 passing yards and 87 rushing yards.
Davis said it was spectacular to win the game and praised the entire team for what they did all season.
“These kids, the things that our entire football team has done for the last 10 or 11 months, has been amazing. 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,” Davis said.
Candle said he is not going to let the loss ruin their spirit. He said that the trip was good for the team, particularly to be out of the country and play a game in The Bahamas.
“We’re not going to let this thing ruin our confidence moving forward, but we eventually have to start learning lessons from games like this, whatever those lessons may be,” he said. “As far as the week goes and the trip goes, it was good for our kids to be out of the country to play a football game in a beautiful place like this. Like I mentioned before, there was incredible hospitality from everybody involved in this bowl game. We’re going to say goodbye to 15 rock-solid senior guys who went through a lot during their time here. These guys have given a lot to our program and a lot to the Rockets. Hats off to them,” added Candle.
Receiving the defensive MVP award was Panthers’ linebacker Edwin Freeman. He finished with eight tackles, five were solo.
With the Panthers victory, C-USA teams have won three of the five Bahamas Bowl games. This game marked the end of the football season for both teams.
Craig Johnson is the mayor of Elk Grove Village that uses ‘Makers Wanted’ as its slogan. Makers Wanted also sponsors professional teams such as the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago Bears.
Elk Grove Village is home to the largest industrial park in the United States with a commitment to being beyond business-friendly. The bowl game provides the perfect opportunity to share the message.