ULM (3-8, 2-5 in the Sun Belt) said formal farewells to 20 seniors before the game, and then suffered through a painfully slow start that found the Warhawks down 28-10 by halftime.
"It was Senior Day, it was the last home game," Reffett said in his radio interview. "Sometimes the kids can focus on too many of the distractions. We had some of our best and most experienced players that totally and completely blew some assignments that just turned some guys loose in coverage."
During the week several underclassmen said or tweeted that they wanted to win the game for their departing seniors. But Reffett said ULM didn't show the same focus it usually does on game day.
"I've seen this a lot on these Senior Days," Reffett said. "There are so many things going on and they put so much pressure on themselves to perform well that they actually make it worse until it's too late."
On the first play of FIU's second series, a 33-yard screen to running back Kedrick Rhodes sparked a scoring drive that gave the Panthers a 7-0 lead with 5:19 to play in the first quarter.
FIU took a 14-0 lead in the second quarter on a 27-yard touchdown pass from Wes Carroll to Glenn Coleman. The New Orleans native from West Jefferson High School made a terrific shoestring catch on the crossing route.
"We're predominantly a man-coverage team and it wasn't we got beat by a guy," Reffett said. "We just didn't cover them at all. And it was some of our older guys that you just don't expect that from."
Explosive FIU receiver T.Y. Hilton broke free for a 58-yard touchdown to put his team up 21-7 in the second quarter, dousing the fire of a 98-yard kickoff return by ULM's Luther Ambrose. On the pivotal play, Hilton slowed up near the sidelines as if he were going out of bounds, then broke back inside and darted to the end zone when the Warhawk defenders slacked off.
"Hilton's long touchdown, we had the guy doubled and we still couldn't make the play on him," Reffett said.
Even though ULM knocked FIU starting quarterback Jake Medlock out of the game on the first offensive series, the Golden Panthers gained 283 yards with 14 first downs on 45 plays in the first half. Carroll, FIU's regular starter before Medlock displaced him, threw for three touchdowns and 196 yards in relief in the first two quarters. Carroll finished 16-of-34 for 213 yards.
"I'm a fifth year senior, I've seen it all," Carroll said. "I felt like I was mentally prepared at any point to go in the game. The guys responded obviously. It was a familiar feeling. We've done it a few games before."
The second half was different as FIU gained just 57 additional yards and did not score. But with ULM's offense suffering its own woes, the damage was done.
"At this point I'm really disappointed for our seniors, which I think has been a very special class," ULM coach Todd Berry said. "We didn't play well and that's my responsibility, but the bottom line is we didn't play well. Defensively we didn't handle our assignments, in the first half in particular. While everyone knew their assignments, they couldn't execute them. (FIU) has a nice offensive football team and they took advantage, which all good offensive football teams do when you give them something, they take advantage. We didn't cover people we were supposed to cover or keep contain."
Handle with care: Do not doubt the toughness of ULM quarterback Kolton Browning, who posted huge numbers while being pummeled by FIU's marauding defense.
Berry's offense funnels a large percentage of plays through the dual-threat quarterback but Saturday's ratio was greater than usual. Browning ran 25 times for 101 yards and completed 26-of-59 passes for 246 yards with one touchdown and two picks.
Along the way though, FIU sacked Browning four times while delivering a flurry of hits on the redshirt sophomore. FIU's defense registered 11 quarterback hurries and kept Browning scrambling.
"They physically dominated us up front on defense," Berry said. "Our offensive line… there wasn't any time. We changed protection schemes; we did an awful lot of things to try to buy some help. They kept on. They dominated us up front." Under duress with 2:58 left in the first half, Browning tossed a demoralizing pick-six that Jonathan Cyprien returned nine yards for a 28-7 lead.
Unable to control FIU's surge, the Warhawks barely even tested a conventional running game. Tailback Jyruss Edwards, who rushed for a career high 191 yards last week and scored seven combined TDs in ULM's last two games, had one carry at halftime and finished with three carries for no yards. Capable backup runner Mitchell Bailey had four carries for nine yards.
"The lack of a traditional run game came from the fact that when we snapped the football they were hitting us four yards in the backfield," Berry said. "That makes no sense. So all of a sudden, you have second-and-14. Every time we tried to run the ball the conventional way they were in the backfield. We got physically abused up front."
The Flash: A neglected asset on offense, senior Luther Ambrose again used special teams as his personal showcase for speed. Ambrose returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter and collected 162 all-purpose yards with two punt returns for 33 yards and a 30-yard kickoff return. He caught one pass for one yard.
Ambrose, who scored on a 100-yard kickoff return at North Texas, became the fifth player in Sun Belt Conference history to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in a season. Including a 91-yard TD return at Arkansas State in 2008, Ambrose has three for his career to rank third in the Sun Belt record books.
The Warhawks have failed to incorporate their speedster into the offense this season though. After recording 65 catches for 752 yards and six TDs as a junior, Ambrose has just 17 catches for 99 yards though 11 games.
Electric boogaloo: One of the most dynamic players in the Sun Belt Conference, T.Y. Hilton led FIU with 76 receiving yards on four catches, including his 58-yard score. He lost seven on one rush, added 15 yards on kickoff returns and 42 on punt returns for 126 all-purpose yards.
"I think he's definitely got a future at the next level," Reffett said. "He's probably as elusive as maybe anybody I've played against. He definitely has earned every accolade and every bit of praise that he's gotten. The thing about him too is, I think he plays the game right. You don't see the showboating that a lot of the kids do."
Quote to note: "They completely dominated the line of scrimmage. It wasn't missed assignments, but we have to get in the weight room and we've got to get bigger and stronger. The ways that we did get loose involved a lot of moving parts and sometimes we didn't function as well. The quarterback (Kolton Browning), as soon as he caught the ball he was running for his life, and when the other parts were moving around it became disjointed. It was just a really bad offensive performance all around." – ULM's Berry.
Up next: ULM takes a bye before taking a bow on the season at FAU on Dec. 3. The game will mark the end of FAU coach Howard Schnellengberger's long career. Losers of 13 straight dating back to 2010, FAU fell to 0-10 with a 34-7 loss at Troy on Saturday.
Tail feathers: Senior linebacker Jason Edwards led ULM for the sixth time with 11 tackles. … Announced attendance was 10,587. … Voted permanent captains by teammates, Jyruss Edwards, Ken Dorsey and Luther Ambrose represented ULM in the coin toss. … Browning made his 23rd consecutive start at quarterback. He moved into third place in completions (228) and sixth place in total offense (2,691 yards) for a single season. He led the Warhawks in rushing for the ninth time in his career, a ULM QB record. Browning became the first ULM quarterback to top 100 yards rushing since Kinsmon Lancaster gained 126 yards on the ground Nov. 8, 2008 at Middle Tennessee. … FIU now has seven regular season wins, the most in program history.