Off the football field, two Florida International University Panthers players were victims of a drive-by shooting. Before the final game of the year, one player was arrested on domestic violence charges. In the end, on the field, it turned out to be the best season in the program’s 16-year history.
Running back Anthony Jones and teammate offensive lineman Mershawn Miller were shot Sept. 6, while picking up clothes in Opa-locka and visiting friends.
Jones rushed for three touchdowns, including the clincher with 41 seconds remaining as the Panthers defeated Toledo 35-32 on Friday in the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl. Jones tied a school record with the three scores, and FIU (9-4) set a school record with its ninth win of the season.
“I’m extremely happy for my teammates, these seniors, all my coaches, the support staff at FIU, they were all behind me the whole time,” Jones said. “I’ve been extremely blessed by the man above.”
The alleged gunman is in custody and is facing two counts of attempted first-degree murder. Miller was hit in the arm; Jones was shot in the back and the bullet exited just under his eye. He lost about 20 pounds in the days afterward, during which he was fed by tube.
“This is a gift from God,” FIU coach Butch Davis said.
FIU did not look like they were in paradise while in Nassau, Bahamas to start the game. They fumbled away the opening kickoff, gave up a touchdown 23 seconds into the game and found themselves trailing 10-0 by the end of the first quarter.
It was the Panthers’ first 9-win season, their second bowl victory, coincidently, the other came in 2010 — also against Toledo and Butch Davis first bowl victory since taking the head coach job last season.
Jones became the sixth player to rush for three touchdowns in a game for FIU and the first since Kedrick Rhodes did it in a loss to Louisiana in 2011.
“We just played as a team today, man,” Jones said. “Our coaches did a great job preparing us for this bowl game. Hats off to Toledo, but we did a great job today. We made history today.”
Christian Alexander was impressive as he completed 17 of 26 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown for FIU. The Panthers got a huge fourth-down conversion on a pass hauled in by Tony Gaiter IV with 2:40 remaining, the biggest play in a drive where Jones capped the win with his final TD run — the 18-yarder that sealed the win.
FIU played without starting quarterback James Morgan, who has an arm injury. Morgan completed 65 percent of his passes for 2,727 yards and 26 touchdowns in the regular season. FIU also didn’t have running back Shawndarrius Phillips, who was left home after a domestic battery by strangulation more than three months after a Broward County court issued a warrant for Phillips’ arrest.
If you do the math, that means Phillips played 11 games, five of which he started, as a wanted man.
The police affidavit is disturbing. Phillips began choking an ex-girlfriend with his right hand. “Phillips got her on her feet and walked her back towards his couch until she fell back on the couch,” according to the affidavit.
Questions will need to be answered when the Panthers travel back to Miami since Phillips remains on the roster.
Toledo (7-6) has now lost three straight bowl games.
For entertainment purposes out in the desert. Toledo scored a touchdown with one second remaining on the game clock. Both teams began walking off the field; however there was an official review, two seconds were placed back on the clock for an extra point and onside kick. Linebacker Sage Lewis recovered the kick for the Panthers.