About the right shoulder of FIU's rushing leader...
Me: What's the Alex Gardner report?
FIU football coach Ron Turner: "Um...(three-second pause)...Don't know. It might be a couple of weeks, we don't know. So, we'll wait and see how it comes along. I'd say he's very doubtful for the next one (Nov. 1 home game against Rice) but you never know."
Me: He's not for the season, is he?
Turner: "I hope not. I mean, you never know on these things. We'll look at it later this week and see, get a feel. I don't think so. But you never know. It's a possibility."
Not exactly saying the only pads Gardner will be using from now until the spring are iPads. But coaches tend toward this kind of uncertainty when they know something's bad or very likely to be bad. As I wrote yesterday, I can't see them risking Gardner against Rice.
FIU will practice again Wednesday, then get Thursday, Friday and Saturday off.
I'll be writing on defensive tackle Imarjaye Albury later this week.
There was no official update on freshman running back Alex Gardner's right shoulder, injured in the fourth quarter of Saturday's 45-13 loss to Marshall.
The sling in which Gardner had his right arm Monday morning -- I saw him on campus three times -- wasn't exactly heavy bondage stuff, but looked like basic shoulder immobilization. And it apparently didn't pop out, as was the initial concern.
Broad range semi-educated guess by a non-medical professional? One to four weeks. Even if on the short side of that, I'd bet on Gardner being held out of the Rice game just to make sure everything's all healed. For what it's worth...
Gardner's 582 yards and 4.2 yards per carry leads FIU in both categories. Sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith's 42 catches, 485 yards and four touchdowns lead FIU in all those categories. After a Saturday afternoon bowl of Rice, Smith should own the single season school records for receptions (47, Samuel Smith, 2006) and yards (510, Samuel Smith, 2004) for a tight end.
(Speaking of Smith, the College Football Performance Awards gave Smith another Honorable Mention nod among the nation's tight ends for his eight-catch, 74-yard game Saturday).
The quarterback's a true freshman and tends to make good decisions, if not always the best throws. The freshmen and sophomore linebackers show tremendous promise.
In other words, there's a good young base that's getting experience this year as key players in games that matter and games that contain more shifts than the opponent accelerating over FIU. Roster holes remain. There's a lot to question about the coaching staff though the defensive guys deserve credit for scheme adjustment and just going with the best players, regardless of class.
FIU's 3-5 with at least three games remaining against teams (Rice, Old Dominion, North Texas) that look quite beatable. The other opponent, Middle Tennessee State, clearly looks like the second best tea in the conference but isn't exactly Oregon.
Long way of saying anybody that disappointed in this football season at the bye needs a reality shot. Or a move to Tuscaloosa, where you can annoy Little Nicky.
I'm not a big fan of Single Shooter Theories. Fans always want the Single Shooter. They want an Oswald. They want the simple reason for failure. A simple reason for failure means a simple, therefore easy and possibly quick, fix. So, prosecuting observers often convict the quarterback or coach alone when losses tend to be conspiracies of failure and achievement.
Several things happened over the last two and a half quarters to turn a crackling 14-7 game into yet another Victim of the Week TV movie starring Marshall. But I'd put at the top of the list FIU's inability to get anything going downfield to the wide receivers.
Look, Marshall's a better team on both sides of the ball. And if Marshall's the Death Star, quarterback Rakeem Cato's Darth Vader, a Jedi master even on a night completing only 55.6 percent of his passes. FIU didn't have a single tackle for loss or sack. One play, FIU junior defensive end Michael Wakefield broke through and, with Cato dead, froze as Cato wiggled in the pocket then got off the pass. Jedi mind trick? Hypnotic dance?
To have a shot, FIU needed to play very well and hope Marshall had something of an off night. As well as the Panthers played early in the game, they still suffered key boo-boos. The third and 6 call from the Marshall 25, a run to Lamarq Caldwell, demonstrated either somebody making The Big Tall Wish or spectactular ignorance of the personnel on the field. The blocked field goal followed.
(The first play of that drive was perhaps the funniest, definitely FIU's longest, play of the night. Tight end Cory White shrugged off a tackle after a reception, then ran looking repeatedly over his shoulder as if he'd just dropped dime on the Cocaine Cowboys. Jermaine Holmes caught White from behind and tackled him after a 46-yard gain.)
Later, a block-in-the-back penalty on Richard Leonard's interception return took FIU from a first and goal, down only 14-7 all the way back to the FIU 7. Just those two instances saw six points, maybe a halftime lead left on the field by FIU. Get that and without the problem we'll now get back to, this could've been an interesting game late for people other than the over/under bettors and families of the backups.
On the issues downfield, I'm not just parroting what FIU coach Ron Turner fingered as the reasosn FIU ran for 75 yards on 13 carries (5.7 a pop) in the first quarter and 37 for 125 (3.4 per carry, not counting sacks) after that. Take a look at this second quarter Tweet. Or this one.
By the end of the second quarter, Marshall started squatting on the run. By the third quarter, with FIU down 24-7, Marshall sat on those slants, hitches and bubble screens like Big Mama sits on her bleacher spot for four quarters.
Last week, a Texas-San Antonio defensive lineman got the timing down on one of FIU's 3-step drops and deflected the pass into an interception. Saturday, the same thing happened in the fourth quarter with defensive lineman Arnold Blackmon playing L.C. Greenwood and fellow trench worker Jarquez Samuel getting the interception. Samuel returned the ball to the 27. Rakeem Cato to Devon Johnson and it was 31-7. Before you could say "Game Over," from the FIU 26, Marshall's Corey Tindal jumped a short route for a 30-yard pick six.
Before Clinton Taylor's three catches for 27 yards and a touchdown on the garbage time drive to FIU's second touchdown, the summary of the wide receivers production would be "T.J. Lowder, one catch, 19 cards" and "DeAndre Jasper, one catch, 5 yards." Each had at least one drop and another medium-tough catch not made. Not putting them alone. You could go find plays where receivers didn't compete for balls or ran soft routes. Or quarterback Alex McGough simply blew the throw. Or, McGough didn't have enough time.
The FIU downfield play all night might've been when freshman Thomas Owens, seeing an end zone throw for him into double coverage was about to be intercepted by Marshall's fifth-year senior cornerback Darryl Roberts, stripped Roberts as well as Roberts has any receiver this year.
"You can only run so much. You've got make plays in the passing game," Turner said. "We had a lot of opportunityes to make them. We either didn't protect well enough -- we had one protection where we had exactly what we wanted, but we turned the Sam linebacker loose when he should've been blocked -- things like that hurt us. It's hard to keep running the ball effectively if you can't make plays in the passing game."
All FIU's big pass plays were tight ends breaking tackles. White's 46-yarder was his only catch. Sophomore Jonnu Smith (8 catches, 74 yards) broke free for a 24-yarder on FIU's first touchdown drive. Akil Dan-Fodio's 27-yard gain actually was something of a deep cross.
"We've got to start making those plays in the passing game with our wide receivers. It can't keep being 'Jonnu, Jonnu, Jonnu,'" Turner said.
Marshall's wide receivers didn't make many plays, actually. Only eight catches for 109 yards and a touchdown, a quarter's work some games for that bunch. They drew enough penalty flags, however.
It was interesting watching Cato work. The first drive, he went at fifth-year senior safety Justin Halley. Later, he wanted some Wilkenson Myrtil and threw at him for a couple of plays. He tried Jeremiah McKinnon often. McKinnon made a nice breakup of a deep post to Angelo Jean-Louis early. You could almost see him thinking, "Richard Leonard's over there, so I'll hold off on Door No. 3 unless absolutely necessary. Let's check over here..."
The first time Cato threw at Leonard, he did so out of desperation, off a scramble. Cato found Tommy Shuler for 16 yards along the left sideline to the FIU 8. Two plays later, he stepped up in the pocket and his Jean-Louis for a touchdown. The second time Cato threw at Leonard, McKinnon intercepted, but Leonard got flagged for pass interference on Shuler. Leonard disagreed with the call. It was at the press box end, and it looked like a good call from my angle. But, then, things tend to have a way of working out -- the next play, Leonard got his interception.
"I thought I was going to get a lot of work today, but they proved me wrong," Leonard said.
Stop the game at 38-7 and you see what a good job the FIU defense actually did on Marshall, aside from massive running back Devon Johnson (117 yards rushing, 79 and two touchdowns receiving). Big backs -- Johnson, Pitt's James Conner -- seem to be FIU's yellow kryptonite. One touchdown was defensive, another touchdown on a short drive after a turnover. They beat the Panthers on special teams with the blocked field goal and Shuler's 34-yard punt return being the night's only huge return.
Good teams expose your deficiencies. Marshall exposed FIU's. The Herd exposed FIU's youth and inconsistency.
The lack of big plays from the wide receivers grows into a second level concern if they lose running back Alex Gardner, who can explode out of the backfield, for any of the remaining four games with a shoulder injury. Anthon Samuel's a good back who's as good on the 3-to-6-yard grind, but Gardner's got more niftiness.
There's much to work before the next game, Nov. 1, noon, against Rice, and much time to work. There's no Oswald. It's a Conspiracy of Deficiencies the Panthers must unravel.
It's been a busy Friday -- writing, playdates, cooking for playdates, Sushi Samba -- I've got a Breast Cancer Awareness Walk early Saturday followed by a post-walk social followed by the game. So, let's get to the nitty, as Joe Bob Briggs would say, and get out of here.
Let's start with: the Homecoming Council members connected with booking the Homecoming week concerts (DJ Tiesto) and comedy acts (D.L. Hughley, Eddie Griffin) should get free drinks and hot stone massages for a month. Great gets.
Whoever can claim connection with scheduling Homecoming for the week of the Marshall game should get hot stones thrown at them. Did somebody not see Florida State or Alabama on the schedule and figure, "Oh, what's the difference between Marshall and Rice?" The weekend FIU wants to end on a feelgood note and somebody picks the weekend FIU plays a team that's not just thinking "we must go undefeated" but "we must score like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Clinton at Studio 54 and engineer 1983 Nebraska blowouts?" That's cooking bacon naked, just asking for trouble.
Speaking of the Cornhuskers, next year Nebraska's comes down for a Sept. 19 game against the Hurricanes. Why not see if the Children of the Corn will go for a full week in South Florida bookended with games? See if they'll drop Southern Mississippi Sept. 26, and pick up the Panthers. Then, FIU can have Nebraska for Homecoming! If you're going to get spanked at Homecoming, get the people whose predecessors practically trademarked 69-17 and has 48 years of experience delivering it.
The FIU coaching staff should've made t-shirts this week saying "Keep Calm and Do Your Job." The first part is for the offense. The second part is for each individual member of the defense.
Taking the second part first...you can talk all you want about FIU's offense helping the defense against this juggernaut offense by "shortening the game" or "keeping their offense off the field." FIU's defense is going to have to stop Marshall's offense at some point. It'll have to do it more than once.
FIU defensive coordinator Josh Conklin described Marshall's offense simply: spread out to make the defense play seven against the run, four against the pass and beat you in the one-on-one showdowns. They bet on opponents not having enough quality defensive backs to cover their receivers. They also bank that opponents won't have enough players who can get off blocks before 243-pound Devon Johnson starts his Peterbilt imitation.
"There's more pressure on each individual job, controlling his gap," Conklin said. "If he's got the quarterback, he's got the quarterback. If he's got the dive, he's got the dive. That's what they've build their system around."
Does seeing how Pitt's big, athletic line and James Conner simply wore down FIU last month make you wonder why Marshall would do any more than occasional passing. Here's why: they want points. Big, fat hunks of creamy carbo-loaded points to build obese blowouts and grab attention of decision-makers who sniff at Marshall's schedule quality. Also, quarterback Rakeem Cato's their best player. You don't take the ball out of your best player's hands too often.
So, they're going to throw the ball on FIU and they're going to look for the matchups. On the outside, expect them to go after junior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon instead of redshirt junior Richard Leonard. Their DVR isn't broken. Leonard's simply having a better year against better receivers. The last time Cato saw Leonard, who Phil Steele named a Third Team All-America in his midseason awards, Leonard got an interception in The Beef O'Brady's Bowl.
And they like to throw long. Cato's got the second best yards per completion in the nation.
“Their wide receivers do a great job at the top of their deep ball routes of finishing the routes,” Conklin said Tuesday. “I just told (the cornerbacks) today, we’ve got to get used to finishing on the deep ball.”
Meaning “going attacking at the high point. Not waiting for it," he continued. "A deep ball’s a 50-50 ball, we’ve got to think about we’re turning into the wide receiver, and we’ve got to go get it, not wait for it. If you get position on the wide receiver, great. But now we’ve got to go attack it.”
Marshall's allowed only eight sacks in six games. It'll be tough to get to Cato. Sometimes, however, a good middle push that prevents a quarterback from stepping into a throw works as well as pressure off the ends. Those throws come with a little zip minus, giving coverage time for recovery or interception positioning. Cato's thrown five interceptions and fumbled three times, losing one. Marshall's lost six fumbles as a team. Add it up and the FIU bakery should be open for more turnovers. The Panthers haven't won a game this year without a defensive touchdown. They probably won't beat Marshall without one.
Without much of an offense, FIU yapped at Marshall's heels last year, up 3-0 after one quarter and down 13-3 until the last minutes of the second. A Marshall interception and touchdown drive ended the half 20-3. And, "aloha" means good-bye.
"The approach we take this year will be a lot different," Conklin said. "Last year, our deal was, we're going to come out trying to blitz and pressure, then kind of settle in. This year, we're structured differently. We feel like we've got a better plan in terms of how to defend them."
Offensively, keep calm. That's what FIU head coach Ron Turner knows he has to do as a play caller especially if Marshall gets off to its normal start.
Marshall's given up 132 yards and zero points in 30 plays on six first opponent drives. Meanwhile, The Herd has scored four touchdowns and a field goal on its six opening drives and hasn't trailed all season.
Too often, coaches facing a Marshall get down early, 10-0, 14-0 and go into full Costanza fire mode.
Coaches start reaching for a desperation big punch instead of building their way back into the game. Look for FIU to keep trying to run the ball, throwing the slants and bubble screens. One thing they might want to try, though, especially against fifth-year senior corner Darryl Roberts early -- some type of hitch and go with a serious speedster. Roberts will play in the receiver's mouthpiece and sit on the short stuff early. Just as Texas-San Antonio got the rhythm of FIU's plays, guessed right and got a tipped pass interception, he'll be trying to do the same. FIU needs to throw some wariness into Roberts early.
Middle Tennessee State, with a jumbled line and a few running backs, got to Marshall on the ground off option runs. FIU can do that. Maybe the Panthers can run it with stretch plays, also.
FIU needs to get early points and stay in the game for a half. Here's Marshall's halftime scores this season: 28-3, 17-0, 27-0, 31-3, 42-7, 28-17. The Herd's experienced, but do they even remember what it's like to be in a one-score game at halftime? Throw in the factor of several Marshall players from South Florida getting the rare or last chance to play in front of the home folks and parts can get awfully tight if the score stays close.
But, cooked down to the rock, it's a veteran team at its peak against a young team hoping to bounce back from disappointment.
Marshall 48, FIU 24.
That's one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.
FIU took a 1-0 lead into the final minute on Shelby Bowden's first goal of the season. Then, the drama began.
Rice scored with 29 seconds left in regulation to tie the game. In the 97th minute, FIU senior Ashleigh Shim set up fifth-year senior Chelsea Leiva for Leiva's fifth game-winner of the season (ranking fifth nationally), a golden goal that gave FIU a 2-1 win. FIU, 7-6-1 overall and 2-2-1 in Conference USA plays North Texas Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m.
CBSSports.com's midseason All-America team put sophomore Jonnu Smith as its Second Team tight end.
That's not mid-major All-America team. That's midseason. In fact, Smith's the only player not from one of the Power Five conferences on the First or Second Team Offense or Defense.
Sabrina Beaupre's graduated and gone, but FIU's still owning its conference's Diver of the Week award via a blond Canadian.
Freshman Rebecca Quesnel's wins in the 1-meter and 3-meter events against FAU earned her the Conference USA Diver of the Week award. Her 276.83 score in the 1-meter was the fourth best in FIU history.
The swim team's 1-0. That makes them the only FIU team currently above .500.
None of the football teams had a happy weekend whether in the dome, on the pitch or in Birmingham. But men's soccer (3-7-1, 0-4-0) could really use some comfort food Wednesday night at 7:30 against Central Florida
We've dissected American football's failure in The Alamodome. By the way, Ron Turner blamed four of the six fumbles on poor ball security, letting off wide receiver Dennis Turner's fumble along the sideline and saying freshman quarterback Alex McGough's sack-fumble was a matter of being crunched in the pocket.
The women's soccer team (6-6-1, 1-2-1 in conference) lost 2-0 at Middle Tennessee State Sunday despite a season-high 19 shots. Friday's match at Alabama-Birmingham got deluged out. But that rain's not quite as sad as another MacArthur Park downpour of goals breaking men's soccer hearts Saturday at No. 7 Charlotte.
Three days after losing to South Carolina on a goal with three seconds left -- the fourth late game goal scored between the two teams -- FIU took a 3-0 halftime lead. Goals by Daniel Gonzalez, Donald Tomlinson and Josue Espana put FIU 45 minutes from an upset.
They never got there. Charlotte pumped in four goals in 18:05 to take a 4-3 lead in the 70th minute, a lead the 49ers took to the end. FIU's held second half leads in three of their four conference games -- and lost each one.
Because it's that time of the week. We're talking football here.
1. Marshall (6-0, 2-0 in Conference USA) -- Like Thriller on the 1983 album charts. Though quarterback Rakeem Cato draws the attention, running back Devon Johnson's run for 814 yards and averaging 7.8 per carry. The defense overwhelms in the first half while the offense builds a big lead. They stomped Middle Tennessee State 49-24. That Alabama-Birmingham game will be interesting.
2. Middle Tennessee State (4-3, 3-1) -- By putting them here, I'm saying Marshall's three touchdowns up on the rest of C-USA.
3. Louisiana Tech (3-3, 2-0) -- Moving up by standing still. Tech took last weekend off before facing Texas-San Antonio this week. Speaking of UTSA...
4. FIU (3-4, 2-1) -- All that bumbling about and still losing by only three on the road via last-minute field goal. I'll drop the Panthers only one spot for that 60-minute fart in the Alamodome last Saturday.
5. UAB (4-2, 2-1) -- Serving up a 56-point Mean Green Flambee last week points up the Blazers combustibility. Saturday's shootout with Middle could dictate the direction of the remainder of the season for both teams.
6. Western Kentucky (2-3, 0-2) -- Didn't play. Didn't lose. Didn't give up 40. Hey, not everybody on this list can say that.
7. UTSA (2-3, 1-1) -- If they keep redshirt freshman Austin Robinson in at quarterback, get the Roadrunners now. In a few games, when Robinson really gets himself together at the college level, there's going to be a lot of "Beep, beep" and zipping along to the end zone.
8. FAU (2-4, 1-1) -- The Woodsy Boys come back from a weekend off to host Western Kentucky.
9. UTEP (3-3, 1-1) -- New Mexico, New Mexico State, Old Dominion...say one thing for the Miners. They know who they have to beat to eat.
10. Old Dominion (3-4, 1-3) -- Having the ball against this defense is like getting to play with Canadian football rules -- a 12th man, forward motion in the backfield at the snap -- except with four downs against a defense playing by American rules. Giving up 46.5 per game to FBS schools.
11. Rice (3-3, 1-1) -- Sitting out this week after beating Hawaii and Army, before getting North Texas. Yeah, I'm not impressed, either. Check back with me after they come to FIU on Nov. 1.
12. North Texas (2-4, 0-2) -- Thought they had a defense they loved. Gave up 56 to UAB. So now they're down here looking for the love they lost.
13. Southern Miss (2-4, 0-2) -- Guess Ole Miss and Mississippi State sucked up all the good players in the state.
THE LONG GREEN
In honor of Oct. 15, the day FIU pays its athletic director a retention bonus (this year, about $76,130), here's this year's list of Conference USA football coach and athletic director base salaries. Put together from public records and published reports from public records.
Todd Monken, Southern Miss, $700,000
Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee State $721,704
David Bailiff, Rice $646,386
Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky $600,000
Doc Holliday, Marshall $600,000
Dan McCarney, North Texas, $600,000
Ron Turner, FIU $501,000
Charlie Partridge, FAU $500,000
Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech $500,000
Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion $425,000
Larry Coker, UTSA, $400,000
Sean Kugler, UTEP $280,000
Bill Clark, UAB Undetermined, though some sources put it at $600,000
Pete Garcia, FIU $380,654
Brian Mackin, UAB $300,000
Rick Villarreal, North Texas $275,000
Mike Hamrick, Marshall $255,000
Chris Massaro, Middle Tennessee State, $250,000
Patrick Chun, FAU, $250,000
Robert Stull, UTEP $233,000
Lynn Hickey, UTSA $147,540
Tommy McClelland II, Louisiana Tech $140,000
Camden Wood Selig, Old Dominion Not Available (He’s not eating bologna -- ODU’s $37 million is the largest department budget in the conference).
FIU's outstanding freshman outside linebacker, Anthony Wint, was on crutches with a knee brace and an ice bag over his left knee Tuesday.
Wint walked off the field in the third quarter Saturday after suffering what appeared to be a left leg injury, but didn't return to the 16-13 loss to Texas-San Antonio. From what I saw Tuesday, I wouldn't expect Wint back for several weeks, maybe the entire season. He's FIU's second leading tackler behind fifth-year senior safety Demarkus Perkins and the only linebacker to start every game this season for FIU.
Junior backup running back Anthon Samuel wore the Home Depot orange injury jersey for a rib injury. FIU coach Ron Turner said Samuel could've played if the Panthers had a game Tuesday.
The line on this game started with FIU a 21-point underdog and is at 21.5 to 22 points now.
Is sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith already one of the 33 best tight ends in the nation?
FIU's quarterbacks would say so, stopping just short of waving foam No. 1 fingers for Smith. They look for him when in trouble the way some people look for Roy Black.
The John Mackey Award people think so. Smith's one of the 33 tight ends on the award's midseason watch list. The award honors the baddest tight end in college football. Smith's 34 catches, 411 yards and four touchdown catches leads FIU in each of those categories.
The word that should make FIU extra happy is "sophomore." Six other sophomores and two freshmen made the list. The other three Conference USA tight ends on the list -- UAB's Kennard Blackman, UTEP's Eric Tomlinson and Western Kentucky's Mitchell Henry -- all are seniors.
FIU, 6-13 overall, got to 3-3 in Conference USA play by sweeping the weekend road trip. I mean, really sweeping the weekend -- 3-0 (25-21, 25-20, 25-17) at Charlotte and 3-0 (25-19, 25-22, 25-20) at Louisiana Tech.
At Charlotte, FIU had a .415 hitting percentage and Lea Montavon led in kills with 13. Kiona McSwain had 35 assists. FIU held Louisiana Tech to a .122 hitting percentage and collected 60 digs.
Sometimes, you see something early in the going and think "If that's how it's going to be, it's going to be a bumpy ride."
When your trip opens with, oh, back-to-back flights delayed after boarding just long enough so that you don't wind up eating for 12 hours, you know it'll end with somebody pounding on your hotel door at 3:30 a.m. because they've got the wrong room. And you're not surprised when the hotel's undergoing more renovations than Bruce Jenner.
The second FIU punt Saturday night got fielded by Texas-San Antonio's Aaron Grubb with three FIU tacklers missiling in on him from the front, the sideline to his right and hopes of any kind of return left back at the snap. Yet, somehow, the coverage allowed Grubb to squirt up the sideline for a 9-yard return.
Most fans and media shrug at those moments when they aren't followed by scoring drives. Coaches gnash their teeth over the "hidden yardage" in the blown tackle, particularly during a defense-dominated game in which special teams often determines field position. Ultimately, the play meant little except as an indicator of the piefight ahead.
Six FIU fumbles, three lost, two causing a total 10-point swing and one recovery being the most amazing one-beating-three this side of Bruce Lee. Six pre-snap penalties. How many drops? At least four, maybe five or six, but less than the number of missed tackles. It's the kind of game I expected from FIU's offense, still too young to maintain consistency. It's hard to ask for more from FIU's defense, which allowed only 16 points, including three field goals in the second half. One came off a 37-yard drive, one off a short field and one after the Glenn Coleman kickoff fumble.
Still, when you lose a game like this, everybody's stained the carpet. At 10-0, FIU, UTSA had one first downs. The Roadrunner's defense had been on the field 5:32 of clock time, an eternity in college-affiliated football, split only by the inadvertently touched punt that FIU recovered to set up FIU's touchdown. The Panthers were starting to push them around. Get the UTSA offense off the field quickly and a tired defense back on the field, the halftime deficit is 10-0, maybe 13-0 or 17-0. The mental mountain in front of UTSA overshadows the actual score.
Instead, they gave up a 74-yard touchdown drive. Not getting it done.
Typical of night's like this: FIU blasted a true freshman quarterback, pocket passer Blake Bogenschutz, out of the game and got redshirt freshman Austin Robinson as Bogenschutz's replacement. Robinson's got a lot of boogie and a good enough arm for what he was asked to do -- mostly bubble screens, swing passes, although he did make some nice throws downfield. If Bogenschutz stays in the game, FIU wins this going away. Robinson ran for 64 yards on 15 carries, including two huge gains on the touchdown drive (37 yards) and the second field goal drive (17 yards).
What undoubtedly kept some FIU players and coaches awake into Sunday morning services is that a reasonably clean game gives FIU a win by 10 or so. UTSA didn't play like a senior-laden team. The Roadrunners got a touchdown called back when a tackle lined up too far off the line. Another touchdown got blown when the bomb fell harmlessly through Brandon Armstrong's arms. Maybe Armstrong lost it in the Alamodome lights. The Roadrunners committed three personal fouls, two that goosed FIU drives. They lost three fumbles themselves.
Do all that and still end a four-game losing streak with a third-string redshirt freshman quarterback against a defense that''s been hurting feelings. No wonder UTSA coach Larry Coker, never known for being an ocean of emotion, got all choked up.
"I've been around this thing for a while, but I've never been prouder of--" Coker paused, tearing up. "I can't even say it..."
Coker's counterpart brought some postgame feeling, too. Though he spoke with a look halfway between wry smile and bewilderment, FIU coach Ron Turner didn't sound happy with anybody. He declared FIU got outplayed, outcoached, played without emotional content, hadn't practiced well.
I didn't have to mention Alex Gardner's fumble on the UTSA 1-yard line with the score tied 10-10. A touchdown there, obviously, changes so much about the end of the game, especially if FIU still gets the field goal later and leads 20-10 into the final two minutes.
"It's first and goal, he's reaching the ball out!" Turner said. "We've got three more downs to get a touchdown and the ball comes out. Inexcusable. Because we teach never reach the ball out -- unless it's fourth down and there's a pylon. Tha's the only time you ever reach the ball out. Ever. And we've been doing a great job of it. But it doesn't matter what we've been doing. Because we didn't do it tonight. So we got exactly what we deserved."
Earlier, Turner had said he didn't want to put it all on Gardner and he was protective of the freshmen Alexes after the game. I'd asked for Gardner and quarterback McGough for postgame interviews and got rejected. Understandable.
The highlight of a rough night for the Panthers rookies -- freshman linebacker Anthony Wint went down with some sort of injury to his left leg that Turner admitted might be a concern -- might've been Gardner's second quarter fumble recovery. Shortly after he took an option handoff from McGough, UTSA defensive lineman Jason Neill grabbed Gardner and treated him like it was hammer throw practice. Out came the ball, rolling toward the FIU end zone. Defensive lineman Brian Price failed to pick it up and run in one motion as Gardner scrambled from Neill with the desperation of a mama seeing her kid toddle into traffic. He got there a breath before Price decided to just fall on the ball with Neill and another defender joining the party. The recovery at the FIU 4 saved a field goal, possibly a touchdown.
Deep in the red zone gave FIU problems again. Gardner's fumble killed one drive. They took a sack on third and goal on a play with Lamarq Caldwell, in the game as the sole running back, immediately went into a pass pattern. Juxtapose Caldwell's pass blocking skills with his pass catching skills. He can do both, but UTSA had been all over McGough all night. So, if Caldwell's your single running back in that situation, he needs to make sure nobody needs help before leaving. If he was supposed to and didn't, that's on him. If that wasn't on his To Do list for that play, that's on coaching.
FIU's still 3-4, 2-1 in the conference. I see it as a disappointing loss not as much for how they played -- a game like this is inevitable for a young team, though coaches hate to say it -- but for what they lost. , Escaping with a win after getting a goofup game out of their system would've set the Panthers up well for bowl eligibility long term. Short term, they'd face Conference USA monster Marshall next week with more confidence.
"It's a young team. We've got to learn how to prepare in all areas, each week," Turner said. "We've got to learn how to play with that chip, that edge. We didn't play with the edge. we didn't play with the chip we've had. I talked to them all week to them. We didn't play with the hunger we've played with the last couple of weeks. (If) we get it back, we can be a good football team, win a lot of games. If we don't, we're not. We're not good enough just to go out there and play. We've got to prepare and play as well as we're capable."