Trojans top Panthers, earn trip to Big Easy
Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 3, 2006
Special to the messenger
MIAMI, Fla. - Junior quarterback Omar Haugabook ran for a season-high 111 yards and threw for two touchdowns as the Troy Trojans captured their first Sun Belt Conference championship on Saturday evening with a 26-13 victory over Florida International at FIU Stadium.
With the win, the Trojans (7-5, 6-1) earn a share of the league title with Middle Tennessee State as well as the league's automatic berth in the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, where Troy will face the Rice Owls on Friday evening, December 22, at the Louisiana Superdome.
FIU (0-12, 0-7) joined with Duke as the only teams to go through the entire 2006 season without a victory. The game was FIU coach Don Strock's final game on the Panthers' sideline.
Troy missed an opportunity to take an early lead after FIU muffed a punt, giving the Trojans possession deep in Golden Panther territory. The Troy offense was unable to pick up any ground and the opportunity came up empty when junior Greg Whibbs' 45-yard field goal attempt was wide right.
After failing to score in the first quarter for the ninth time this season, the Trojans got on the board first early in the second quarter when junior Leodis McKelvin took a Chris Patullo punt at the FIU 48 and sprinted straight up the field for a touchdown. It was McKelvin's fourth career punt return for a score, but Whibbs missed the PAT, leaving Troy with a 6-0 lead.
FIU answered Troy's special teams score with one of their own midway through the quarter when Matt Garris blocked a Jason Wright punt, and junior Cory Fleming scooped up the loose ball and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown. The Panthers added the PAT to take a 7-6 lead.
The Trojans used a little trickery on their next possession to light a fire under the offense, splitting two offensive linemen out wide to the right side on back-to-back plays to get a first down.
Haugabook followed with a 28-yard scramble to the FIU 7-yard line, but the Trojans failed to score when Kenny Cattouse fumbled at the FIU 2-yard line and the Panthers recovered.
After forcing another FIU punt, the Trojans turned to Haugabook to get the offense into the end zone before halftime. The junior picked up a pair of long gains on the ground to give Troy a first-and-goal, and then, on third down, he connected with freshman Andrew Davis for an 8-yard touchdown pass. Whibbs nailed the PAT for a 13-7 Troy lead at the intermission.
The Trojans padded their lead on the first Troy possession of the second half. After a short FIU punt gave Troy the ball at the FIU 41-yard line, Cattouse ran inside the FIU 20 on first down, but Troy was unable to move any deeper and settled for a 29-yard field goal from Whibbs for a 16-7 lead at the 12:01 mark.
Troy began to pull away after another negative play on special teams for the Panthers. FIU got a bad snap on a punt attempt, and when punter Chris Cook looked up after picking up the ball in the end zone he saw no one in front of him. Instead of kicking, he decided to run, and was tackled at the FIU 22, well short of the first down.
Troy took over and used a pair of Cattouse runs to get to the FIU 13, setting up Haugabook's touchdown pass to Toris Rutledge at the 9:28 mark for a 23-7 Troy lead.
Troy added another field goal early in the fourth quarter, this one from 36 yards out, to pad the lead to 26-7.
FIU finally mounted an offensive drive late in the fourth quarter, covering 73 yards in 11 plays on the drive, which was capped by a 1-yard pass from Josh Padrick to Chandler Williams. The Panthers missed the PAT, leaving Troy with a 26-13 lead with 4:18 left in the game.
After FIU got the ball back, the Troy defense brought the house, sacking Padrick on three consecutive plays, forcing the Panthers to punt from inside their own one.
Once the Trojans secured possession, the celebration was on.