September 03, 2015

GameDay I, 2015: Relatively New Schools Going Old School

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Men's soccer -- Thursday vs. Fairfield, 7 p.m.

The best part about the premiere of the 2015 FIU football season up near Wally World East (other than it's, you know, football with meaning): fast game. Football efficiently delivered.

Your Thursday night won't be obliterated by a game bloating into a miniseries, like many college-affiliated football contests these days. The expected strength of each offense lies in the running game. Each defense seems to have the matchup advantage. That translates into few clock-pausing incompletions or first downs.

That also means the total points might be as few as the schools' enrollments are many. The low score should fence the tension in this game and elevate the worth of each snap. I realize that thumbs the nose at the conventional assumption that offense=excitement. Too often in modern college-affiliated football, games turn into Frat Field Trip on Okeechobee Road. Everybody scores, cheap. 

Back in 1980, as NFL teams responded to the 1978 rules changes about downfield contact by flowing toward the pass the way current newspaper readers flow to mobile devices, Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman testified for the beauty in defensive tug-of-wars. In writing about the regular season game between Philadelphia and Oakland and advancing the Super Bowl between the same teams, he criticized the 42-35 shootouts as containing so many big plays none truly were big. He hailed the low-scoring duels in which an 86-yard touchdown pass counted as a crushing overhand right, not just a quick hook in the middle of a flurry. Teenage me understood Dr. Z's reasoning. I couldn't let myself agree with it. I'm with him now. I wish he could still be with us in full.

That reminds me, what'll come together first? FIU's ability to push the ball downfield or UCF's ability to cover it? FIU's breaking in a group of wideouts with little experience and less production. UCF's breaking in a new secondary.

At first, I liked FIU to hit an Alley Oop or two to 6-1 Thomas Owens -- big, good body position, leaping ability and hands. But six of the eight Knights defensive backs on their two-deep list at 6-foot or over and the other two list at 5-11. So maybe as likely as Owens outjumping guys of similar height and athletic ability, is flyguy wide receiver Dennis Turner racing free through some miscommunication or getting single coverage when a safety blows his help responsibilities.

FIU coach Ron Turner says UCF makes you earn everything. But that's past UCF, not this UCF. As a longtime offensive coach, Turner should have enough funky arrows in his quiver to confuse the young ones. Then, it's a matter of McGough throwing with Green Arrow accuracy.

In retrospect, not redshirting Turner last year was a mistake. Nobody argues FIU needed what the coaches hoped Turner could inject. Unfortunately, you combine a nice true freshman deep threat wide receiver with a nice true freshman quarterback and you get results that don't look so nice. One or both make physical mistakes or mistakes of inexperience on called long balls. And that's when the quarterback's not getting bounced off the turf. It's no accident McGough's longest connections downfield -- I'm not talking about catch-and-runs -- went to then-senior Glenn Coleman. Having frogs at both ends of the bomb begs for dud.

Junior tight end Jonnu Smith will give his usual. five to eight catches for 60-100 yards, maybe a touchdown. 

I don't feel great that FIU didn't get its offensive line really figured out. That's not a criticism -- what can you do when injuries turn line composition into playing with a Rubik's Cube? Thursday, it could turn into Rubik's Grenade. Even with UCF losing senior defensive tackle Demetris Anderson to a season-ending injury, that's a line with the defensive ends returning and some depth. No. 69, senior defensive end Thomas Niles, will be a problem for FIU. Now, if FIU can get its blockers and runners to the second level, UCF's callow at linebacker. 

UCF coach George O'Leary can talk about how much he likes his young receivers' physical abilities. Does he like them vs. FIU's secondary, corners Richard Leonard and Jeremiah McKinnon, safeties Wilkenson Myrtil and Niko Gonzalez? Gonzalez is the only player among the defensive starters who didn't start at least two games last year. Does O'Leary like his new tackles against FIU defensive ends Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine? Scout team to Perine or Wakefield is a medium-building-in-a-single-bound leap for redshirt freshman right tackle Luke Palmer.

Those matchups and having a former offensive line coach, Brent Key, as offensive coordinator say UCF's going to challenge FIU to put its man pants on as the Knights try to buffalo their way down the field on the hump of running back William Stanback (no relation to Haskel). A Florida humid night in the 80s says try to wear down the smaller, faster defense.

(Back to FIU with the ball for a moment...I'd run some hurry up stuff, just to watch that secondary scramble to figure out what's what.)

Also, I'm sure UCF knows this number almost as well as Panthers fans. FIU's five wins under Ron Turner featured 25 turnovers gained, spread rather equitably: four, six, six, four, five. Junior UCF quarterback Justin Holman threw 14 interceptions last year with a veteran receiving corps. Now, he's throwing to newbies with FIU's ball vultures circling in wait of a mistake they can take to the house. Where's that off tackle play? 

UCF's got a redshirt freshman kicker and a new starting long snapper. FIU's got Richard Leonard. Give that round to FIU, 10-8 (we score on the 10-point-must system here). I'm feeling some cheap points from field position there.

In the preseason section, I went with UCF 21-10. I still see them getting off to a better start than FIU, maybe 10-0. The Panthers break a big play or two to get back in it. I don't see consistent movement from either team. The bettors don't either -- the line's dropped from UCF by 17 to UCF by 13 with an over-under of 45 to 46. Good hitting, though. 

I'll say UCF 21, FIU 17.

That's one melanin-heavy man's opinion. I could be wrong.

AND ANOTHER THING...

As I Tweeted earlier today, I meant to put this on the previous In/Out post and even thought about flippantly including the participants with the players, but...the FIU radio broadcast team will be Mike Levine going play-by-play and FIU's only bowl game starting quarterback, Wesley Carroll, on color.

Pete Pelegrin, who did the radio job solo in 2013 and was Levine's color man last year, will be handling other media relations duties during the game. Pelegrin's knowledge of the breadth of FIU's football history will be missed on the broadcast.

 

September 01, 2015

Who's In, Who's Out

For Thursday's American football game between FIU and UCF.

In: Trenton Saunders at right guard. Redshirt freshman Daquane Willkie backing up the tackle positions. All is right with senior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon.

Out: Safety Jordan Davis, academically ineligible for the first two games. Redshirt freshman tackle Kai Absheer. His hoped for return is next week, against Indiana. Sophomore wide receiver Shawn Abrams, out for four or five weeks. Senior wide receiver Juwan Caesar should be back by the home opener against North Carolina Central.

August 31, 2015

Back That Alex Up (And Other News Hits)

Sounds like Bud Martin got Fredo-ed.

Asked about his backup quarterback situation today, FIU coach Ron Turner said "We have two No. 2s. It'll be Christian or Trey."

That's true freshman Christian Alexander and fifth-year graduate senior transfer Trey Anderson. Much of camp, redshirt freshman Martin got second team reps. No surprise that Anderson's in the running. He's the only guy besides McGough who has seen a college defense from behind center. Alexander's ascension surprises a bit after Martin had a good camp (so I heard) and a good semi-public scrimmage. But Turner loves Alexander's maturity. Being 6-3 with an arm doesn't hurt, either.

The offensive line's still a Jumble in progress, which will be the subject of the story that'll be going online later today and in print tomorrow.

Turner said the secondary's down pat with rotation possibly only with the safeties. I'm wondering if something's up with senior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon. Don't be surprised if junior Deonte Wilson sees a lot of time opposite Richard Leonard this week. Turner said there would be some rotation among the safeties. I'm betting we'll see freshman Tyree Johnson out of Miami Gardens Carol City if that happens.

The line is down to UCF by 14 from 17. Many somebodies thinking UCF won't score enough to cover.

 

Cerca Pero No Cohiba

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Men's soccer -- Thursday vs. Fairfield, 7 p.m. (way to coordinate)

To be fair, the title fits only two out of three from the last football-free weekend until after Thanksgiving. Volleyball's pair of 3-0 wins Saturday over Alabama A&M and South Florida pushed them to 2-1, a nice rebound from Friday's 3-1 loss to North Florida.

Men's soccer is 0-2 after a weekend in the Carolinas but could feel more gold than blue. The Panthers played No. 5 North Carolina and almost-ranked Wake Forest, from the best soccer conference in the country, on even terms.

The Tar Heels held a statistical edge on FIU, but the game remained scoreless until a penalty kick in the 82nd minute when Marvin Hezel got convicted on a hand ball charge. The Tar Heels buried the penalty kick, of course for a 1-0 win. Sunday, FIU took a 1-0 lead on Wake Forest, fell behind 3-1 before losing 3-2. Coach Scott Calabrese said he'd learn a lot about his team quickly. He learned they can go iris-to-iris with top notch ACC teams, even if the Panthers blinked first.

Women's soccer played Central Florida on even terms, at least in the second half. But that's also when an FIU defender bounced off UCF's Ashley Spivey, allowing Spivey the space to take a step to the right and bury a gorgeous shot into the far upper corner in the 55th minute.

Freshman defender Lyrik Fryer showed some wonderful dribbling skill, the type that allows her to beat an opponent two or three times, although once and on your way does the job. FIU's best scoring chances came from junior Alyssa Robinson, who put one shot over the net and eschewed another shot from scoring range for a pass that went awry.

Like the men, the women fell just short of a good, nationally-respected opponent.

FOOTBALL

The first game is in three days. That is all.

 

August 28, 2015

Forcing Futbol Feet to the Fire

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Friday -- Women's soccer vs. UCF, 7 p.m.

Friday -- Volleyball vs. North Florida, 7 p.m.

Saturday -- Volleyball vs. Alabama A&M, noon

Saturday -- Volleyball vs. South Florida, 6 p.m.

Thursday -- Men's soccer vs. Fairfield, 7 p.m.

While FIU women's soccer hosts formerly-ranked Central Florida in a measuring stick game tonight, men's soccer opens the season with a pair of measuring stick games that could easily turn into Big Mama yardstick spankings:

At No. 5 North Carolina in its season-opener tonight; at Wake Forest, which received Top 25 votes, Sunday.

Opening the season with Ali, then Frazier is the idea of head coach Scott Calabrese. The early damage it could do to the record he hopes gets countered by the later benefit in Conference USA, no ACC in soccer but home to two Top 25 teams (No. 17 Charlotte, No. 24 Old Dominion) and three others that received votes (UAB, Kentucky, New Mexico).

"When you play at Chapel Hill and you play at Wake Forest, they have an ability to expose things you do wrong and they'll punish you for it," Calabrese said. "We'll learn a lot about our team. UNC is a team that is usually in contention for a national championship. Playing them will set a standard for what it is to be in that position. The speed of play, how do we measure up to that?"

Last year's results reflected the reality of FIU men's soccer having a first-year coach being the third in four seasons of a program that's been buffeted by NCAA penalties and loss of national relevancy. Their 6-9-1 record included some fine performances but a 2-6 conference record left them outside the CUSA tournament.

Calabrese voiced similar hopes to those stated to me earlier in the day by volleyball's Rita Buck-Crockett.

(For that matter, all the fall sports -- men's soccer, women's soccer, volleyball, football -- spent their 2014 seasons malnourished on wins after losses during which they could smell victory cooking.

"You learn how to win games, not just play games as you mature," Calabrese said. "I think we have a group that's more mature and focused. Do we have an ability to turn good performances into results? Overall, I'd say this team that's starting to come together is more cohesive on and off the field. 

They lost three-time All-Region striker Quentin Albrecht, who led or tied for the team scoring lead each of his four years. Senior midfielder Daniel Gonzalez is the leading returning scorer (nine points). Gonzalez, preseason All-CUSA defender Marvin Hezel and midfielder Donald Tomlinson tie as the leading returning goal scorers (two each).

Making up Albrecht's production (eight goals, two assists last year), Calabrese said, "might be a midfielder scoring four or five, a striker getting six or seven goals, another player chipping in with three or four. I do think we have multiple players who can help us score goals."

The coaches picked FIU sixth. Calabrese figures if the Panthers get into the top four, that'll mean they're playing at a Top 25 level.

Friday, they'll see if they can play at a Top 5 level.

FOOTBALL

Thursday, starting at 5 p.m., there's a watch party at the Chili's in the Graham Center ("The GC") for FIU's season opener at UCF. You veterans without Friday classes can start your weekend. Those of you with Friday classes can start your weekend, too, it's just that you might pay for it one way or the other.

Opening Spike

 

UPCOMING HOME MATCHES/GAMES

Volleyball -- Friday, Panther Invite vs. North Florida, 7 p.m. (ADMISSION IS FREE TO ALL)

vs. Women's soccer -- Friday vs. UCF, 7 p.m.

Volleyball -- Saturday, Panther Invite vs. Alabama A&M  noon

Volleyball -- Saturday, Panther Invite vs. South Florida 6 .m.

FIU volleyball czarina Rita Buck-Crockett speaks in a stream of confidence. She'll compare an incoming freshman to FIU's greatest indoor volleyball player, four-time All-American Yarimar Rosa. She's got no problem telling you she picked the Panthers as No. 1 in Conference USA for the preseason coaches' poll because that's where she wants the Panthers want to finish. The rest of the conference so lightly regards FIU that even with Buck-Crockett's vote, FIU finished ninth.

Not that she does so without providing reason for her confidence. FIU, which opens the season Friday night against North Florida in the Panther Invite at 7 p.m., went 0-4 in five-set matches last year with a young team. Combine experience with results on close games evening out, that's likely an extra two or three wins right there.

"That comes down to experience, which we didn't have a lot of," Buck-Crockett laughed. "But, we fought. The team did not get blown out. I do believe that this year's team is better than last year's team, even though there are young players out on the court. They're more experienced young players. They kjnow the game. I think the culture is getting where I would like it to be.

"The team is better than it was last year. Wins, losses, we'll see."

FIU's last winning record, 20-10, 10-6 in the Sun Belt Conference, came months before Danijela Tomic left for Bowling Green University, unhappy with upper athletic administration. (Bowling Green, Ohio? That's a lot of unhappy.)

Buck-Crockett let former Tomic assistant Trevor Theroulde handle the 10-17, 7-8, 2012 season before he had to be dismissed (tip for you future job seekers in college sports: if you commit a minor NCAA violation that nobody but your Compliance head and a few NCAA geeks care about, bite the bullet. Don't commit the major life violation of lying about it.)

Seasons of 13-17, 6-8 in Conference USA; and 7-23, 4-12 followed.

"It's hard to see from the outside in but even though our team won (six) matches last year, I think the team grew as a whole," Buck-Crockett said. " We did have a lot of young kids. We're trying to jell a past generation with a new generation. That takes time. You have to change cultures. You have to find the motivation for the new culture. I think there are a lot of positive things that happened last year."

In addition to returning senior outside hitter Lucia Castro, senior middle blocker Gloria Levorin and conference All-Freshman team member Jennifer Ene, they signed 6-4 Katie Hogan out of Miami-DAde College.

"Her job is to kill. She's The Terminator. For me, she's our No. 1 hitter. She goes after it. We didn't have that last year," Buck-Crockett said. 

"We have a freshman setter from Canada, (5-11) Katie Friesen, who runs the team. She's a leader on the court. I think we missed that last year. We didn't have the quarterback we needed to run the team. This year, we have a year more experience with the one who played last year and then we have (5-11) Katie Friesen and (5-10) Dominique Dodd.

"They're freshmen, but they're gamers. Also, (5-11) L1na Bernier. She's a freshman, but this kid is...to me, could be the next Yarimar. She's just a firecracker and she's a leader on the court." 

If any FIU fans want to give Bernier the first time once over, admission to FIU Arena for volleyball matches is free to all. That's right, all. Students, parents, students who are parents, their baby mamas and daddies, friends, enemies, freniemies, frenemies with benefits...

 

August 26, 2015

Getting It Together

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Women's soccer -- Friday vs. No. 17 UCF, 7 p.m.

Volleyball -- Panther Challenge, Friday vs. North Florida, 7 p.m.

Volleyball -- Panther Challenge, Saturday vs. Alabama A&M, noon

Volleyball -- Panther Challenge, Saturday vs. South Florida, 6 p.m.

Now, you can walk the walk between FIU Arena and the soccer "stadium" without fear of getting conked by a wayward shot put or discus. North of the International Hurricane Research Center and south of the ROTC area, there's a field in front of a hammer throw cage and two discus/shot put circles.

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Over in FIU Stadium, there's a dry land diving board -- I can't help but think it looks like a prop out of High-Diving Hare -- to help Swim & Dive keep cranking out its run of dominant divers.

The new softball locker room is running behind, but is running.

Meanwhile, eight football players got to play Santa Claus/UPS Guy/Jesse/Whatever Delivery Man Brings You Happiness by bringing season tickets to fans on campus while wearing jerseys to stand out among their fellow students (like they blend anyway). These pictures courtesy FIU Athletic Department.

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That's Provost Kenneth Furton.

ADMINISTRATION

The replacement for Compliance Director Hank Harrawood, the best thing to happen to that department in a while, is Jessica Reo. Reo also gets "Special Projects" attached her "Senior Associate Athletic Director for Compliance" title. Hey, mon, when a dollar needs to be stretched, it's all about how many jobs you can do. Reo worked in compliance at the other Division I/FBS school in town for seven years, but the spent the last seven years as director for student services in Central Florida's athletic department.

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Need to grab some water. These crackers are making me thirsty.

August 24, 2015

Women's Hoop Schedule

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Women's Soccer -- Friday vs. No. 17 UCF, 7 p.m.

Volleyball -- Friday vs. North Florida, Panther Challenge, 7 p.m.

Volleyball -- Saturday vs. Alabama A&M, Panther Challenge, noon

Volleyball -- Saturday vs. South Florida, Panther Challenge, 6 p.m.

FIU's first women's basketball schedule of the Marlin Chinn Era in summary: 18 Conference USA games, FIU's annual Thanksgiving Classic and Sun & Fun Classic, a bunch of non-conference games you probably don't care about and one you probably do: at the Hurricanes, Dec. 22.

The last time Dade County's Blue-and-Gold met its Orange-and-Green in women's basketball the team from the Coral Gables school beat the team from Unincorporated West Dade's 66-49 on Nov. 25, 2008. That's three FIU men's basketball coaches ago. As a Maryland assistant during five seasons in the ACC before the school swung to the Big Ten, Chinn saw Katie Meier's UM teams often. Last year's got to the second round of the NCAA tournament. 

FIU opens the season Nov. 13, at home, against Florida A&M. The Thanksgiving Classic, Nov. 27 and No. 29 features Marquette, FIU's first opponent; Wichita State; and Richmond. The Sun & Fun Classic, Dec. 28 and Dec. 30, brings in Rhode Island, Wake Forest and Hampton. Conference USA play starts at travel partner FAU on Jan. 3 and ends at Middle Tennessee State Mar. 5.

Here's the full slate. Enjoy. Download 2015-16 Schedule

 

Monday Hurts

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Women's soccer -- Friday vs. UCF, 7 p.m.
Volleyball -- Friday, Panther Challenge vs. North Florida, 7 p.m.
Volleyball -- Saturday, Panther Challenge vs. Alabama A&M, noon
Volleyball -- Saturday, Panther Challenge vs. South Florida, 6 p.m.

It's Emancipation Day for parents and No Parking On The Dance Floor or Anywhere Else Day for FIU students: the first day of school.

Looking around after the football class at FIU Stadium, the Orange Crush injury jerseys draped the frames of redshirt freshman right tackle Kai Absheer, who had worked his way to the top of the depth chart; sophomore wide receiver Shawn Abrams, one of FIU's potential threats for bombs and red zone fades; and redshirt sophomore linebacker Jordan Guest.

FIU coach Ron Turner said Guest would be ready for the opener at Central Florida next Thursday. Of Absheer, he said if he wasn't ready for the opener, then by the next week at Indiana. Abrams, like Absheer, got a "we'll see..."

August 20, 2015

First Opening Kickoff Friday & Odds on Another Opening Kickoff

UPCOMING HOME MATCHES/GAMES

Friday -- Women's Soccer, vs. Dayton, 7 p.m.

The first team marching into its stadium (heh-heh) in this year's parade of FIU sports is, as usual, women's soccer. The team does so not draped in its customary attire of glossy official expectation but rather the plain, unfinished garments of apparent rebuilding.

So what? Recent years' glittery preseason clothes made of great expectations looked terribly out of place on the Panthers' heartbroken Miss Havishams the last few years. Since the 2011 Sun Belt Conference title, FIU lost the 2012 Sun Belt Conference championship game to a North Texas team to which they felt clearly better; lost key players in the front and the back early in 2013; then failed to make the 2014 Conference USA tournament despite what coach Thomas Chestnutt called, "The best team, the most talented team we've had."

In fact, for what little he cares for such projections, Chestnutt sees FIU being picked sixth by Conference USA coaches as something of a compliment. He figures if you finish 10th and lose two of the top scorers in school history, Chelsea Leiva and Ashleigh Shim, and still get picked sixth, "I guess the rest of the conference thinks highly of us."

Fifth-year senior defender Nikki Rios said, "I think we'll be a really big force to be reckoned with this year and I don't think anybody's expecting it. We didn't perform to our best abilities (in 2014) and we're predicted sixth this year. Everybody's saying, 'They've got a lot of new players, they've lost their experience, they're only going to go down from here.' That's not the case at all. We're just going to go up from here because we're so willing to win and win that ring this year. And it's (the Conference USA tournament) on our home turf this year."

Rios said she told teammates and coaches, "Marie, me and Scarlet Montoya are the three fifth-year seniors and we're not leaving without a ring on our finger."

Reminded she was a freshman on the 2011 Sun Belt Conference champions, Rios said, "Marie and I were hurt that year, so we don't really count it as our own."

"Marie," by the way, is defender Marie Egan, Second Team All-Conference USA in 2014 and the lone Panther voted to the preseason all-conference team.

"I don't think I've ever wanted to win this ring more," Egan said.

In addition to the intangible of want-to, the similarly amorphous quality of "chemistry" gets claimed by the Panthers.

"We did lose a lot of experienced players, but we did gain a lot of young new players who are willing to learn and work hard as soon as they came in," Rios said. "I think our chemistry is already building and it'll only get stronger."

Chestnutt said the 2014 team lacked accountability more than chemistry, but "You can have good character people, but they may not be able to hold each other accountable because there's chemistry lacking in the group."

FIU's 25-woman roster includes 10 freshmen plus junior goalkeeper Sophia Trujillo, a Gulliver graduate transferring back home from San Diego State. Chestnutt named defender Taylor Coffee (Pembroke Pines Flanagan); defender Jacqueline Manteas; midfielder Steffi Reischmann; and midfielder Jacqueline Byers among those freshmen who'll see the field often.

"Quite a few players in our new class will have a direct impact immediately," Chestnutt said. "If we're not having three freshmen contribute heavily, we're not doing a good enough job of recruiting."

They'll be the first ones at FIU to find out this year how well they've done recruiting and coaching.

FOOTBALL

The Las Vegas handicappers put FIU a 17-point underdog at UCF Sept. 3 with the over/under at 46.5.

Now, back to vacation. See you when classes start.

 


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