FIU received votes in the AP and the USA Today Coaches polls for the first time in program history Sunday. The Golden Panthers picked up four votes in the AP poll and 11 votes in the coaches poll.
Last week, as I sat on the cement steps outside the visitors' locker room in Louisville, frantically writing an already late game story, a gleeful Mario Cristobal appeared over my shoulder. He said a few things then as he bounced away, I said something like this creates the possibility for something huge in the bigger picture. He threw a smile and "now, now" gesture, thinking I was talking about his future coaching picture. "No," I said shaking my head. "13."
As in 13-0. I thought it was possible then. Now, the only thing that keeps at least 12-0 from being probable is most college teams lose a game or two each season that they shouldn't. We're talking about great athletes, but great young athletes. They have a bad day or the other guys have a great day or the ball just doesn't bounce their way. That's the only reason I picked FIU to lose three games this season. When I went through the season game by game for our special section, this was the only game where I felt sure FIU wasn't the better team. And I didn't pick them there or here in my pregame blog.
Central Florida's a good team, still the best team on FIU's schedule. And FIU beat them, not just with a monster defensive play and a short drive after a flat out dumb attempt at fielding a bouncing punt by UCF's Josh Robinson. The Golden Panthers outdefensed a team that shaped its identity around its defense. That's strong.
What happens if FIU goes undefeated? It depends on the way they do it and what happens elsewhere. The Sun Belt does have an automatic bid to a BCS bowl. It just doesn't kick in until a Sun Belt team gets ranked 12th or higher in the final BCS standings or if that team is ranked 16th or higher and is above the conference champion of one of the six automatic qualifier conferences.
Yeah, it's a longshot. At least that's the way it seems now. Something to think about as this season continues...
As I talked to FIU athletic director Pete Garcia about FIU's Cheshire Radio situation from Friday and Saturday, he looked out across a packed southeast parking lot with pride. I had just snapped a picture of that and put it on Twitter when another longtime South Florida media member came up to me and said pretty much the reason I took the picture: look at that lot and you see what FIU dreamed about when they decided to get into the college-affiliated football business. Never mind that it took a strong Central Florida travel crowd to almost fill up FIU Stadium. This energy center draws students. Look, I still believe your best schools remain your best schools for reasons independent of the athletic program, i.e, The University of Chicago, which had the first Heisman Trophy winner, dropped football soon after and has been an elite university for longer than anyone can remember. But I also belive in Bear Bryant's line, "It's kind of hard to rally around a math class."
One big play for a score, Faciane's fumble return. Two long drives, Central Florida's to the game's first touchdown, FIU's to their field goal. Mostly, it was about speed and hitting and who could keep their heads while it was being knocked off.
Speaking of injuries, FIU's being -- surprise! -- a little coy about Hilton's injury. It's obviously a hamstring problem. The question is, how bad? When he came back into the game for a couple of plays, you could tell he was trying to give something that wasn't close to being there. More cereal for the Irony Bowl -- the play on which Hilton went down might've been Carroll's best pass of an erratic night and should've been a gorgeous 35-yard touchdown.
Still, without their dynamite, FIU moved the ball against a defense nobody's moved much against since November. Nobody else on FIU's offense requires you play consistently good team defense the way Hilton does. Subtract Hilton and what remains are enough players you have to respect that when FIU really spread things out with formations, then went between the tackles, they got room to run against UCF.
"I thought the rest of the recievers (aside from Wayne Times), even though they didn't catch that many balls, they blocked well, which was just as important the way they play their outside linebackers," Cristobal said. "If it is a run, they're involved in the box and our receivers did a good job of digging some of those guys out."
UCF's touchdown drive shows how psychologically tough FIU is. That's the kind of drive that crushes wills -- over 10 minutes, 94 yards, 18 plays, extended by a 23-yard scramble by quarterback Jeff Godfrey on third-and-11 and a qeustionable pass interference call on Richard Leonard that wiped out a third-and-goal stop (I like offense, especially pass offense, but let men play a man's game.). Just as with the Louisville score right before the half last week, the next series FIU unplugged the momentum machine with a three-and-out.
Godfrey's slippery, skittering, but FIU adjusted to him, started obeying pass rush lanes and at least getting him off balance on first contact. Like everyone else, FIU was impressed with the way UCF punked Boston College with their downhill running game, but they came out with a good scheme and "expressed it well," as former Colorado and Indiana coach Bill Mallory used to say.
"They have big backs, coaches were telling us every day wrap up, swarm," Isame Faciane said. "As long as you swarm, one person might miss, the next person will make the tackle."
"We had to mix it up. They're powerful up front. Either plus one in the box or you bring pressure," Cristobal said. "We had an eighth guy in (the box) versus their two-back stuff. Whenever they did their "22" personnel -- two backs, two tight ends -- we found a ninth guy to put in there as well. Against the one back stuff, "11" personnel, we found a seventh. We were always trying to put one extra. We were trying to bring pressure. We were trying to give Jeff Godfrey some different looks."
Kedrick Rhodes and Darriet Perry each missed practice early in the week going back home to deal with deaths in or close to the family. With Rhodes, it was a relative. For Perry, it was the mother of his son. I can't imagine as a young man dealing with that kind of tragedy for a few days, then going back to school and football.
While Perry banged in his team-record tying 24th career rushing touchdown to give FIU a 14-7 lead, I thought it was a mistake to take Rhodes out of the game once he ran FIU to a first down on the Central Florida 14 on FIU's next possession. Rhodes was hot with four carries for 46 yards on that drive alone. I'm a big believer when a shifty back like Rhodes gets hot, scrap the game plan and run him like water.
Faciane's 51-yard fumble return touchdown is exactly the kind of play I thought FIU needed to have to win this game, exactly the kind of play I had in mind when I wrote the momentum story for Friday's paper and exactly the kind of play FIU got in each of its first two games. That's a huge play any time of the game. But six seconds before halftime to tie the game, while your home crowd's already sighing wistfully about the injured best player they saw helped into the locker room? That's almost action movie script perfect on the timing.
As a football fan, I loved everything about that play. I like it when the big guys score. I like how Faciane ran, with perfect form and amazing speed. That is the fastest you will see a 290-pound man run without a meal at the other end. I cracked up watching UCF tackle Torrian Wilson start to chase, then peel off looking like he suddenly realized that he'd be expending a lot of big man energy for no fruit.
Just as I was filing the pregame blog at 3:15 a.m. Saturday, I saw Faciane tweeting, "So I went to sleep at 8 and now I can't go back to sleep thinking about this game."
Saturday night, he said, "I slept a lot actually. I went to sleep early, woke up, went back to sleep and kept waking up thinking about it."
Funny how things work -- if officials hadn't blown a third-down reception dead while UCF's Adam Wessley was still fighting for yardage, FIU would've had a fumble there and recovered on about their own 30. Nice close to the half, but not the transformative spell that Faciane's fumble return score would be.
FIU kept giving both Louisville and UCF long fields with nice punting by Josh Brisk -- guest appearance for a pooch punt by Carroll Saturday -- and hustling coverage. That's always been important in football, but more so in the current era, statistically the most offensive in college football history, when it's so hard to get three-and-outs in anything close to an evenly matched game. Field position gives defenses a greater margin for error.
While the football team dumped UCF, the volleyball team truly broke UCF volleyball's heart. At the TownPlace Suites/UCF Challenge, FIU came back from two sets down to beat UCF 3-2 Saturday, 23-25, 25-27, 26-24, 25-21, 17-15, and win the tournament. Jovana Bjelica won the tournament MVP award, senior Sabrina Gonzalez and junior Marija Prsa were named to the all tournament team.
FIU trailed 19-17 in the third set, but came back to take a 20-19 lead. Bjelica, challenged by head coach Daniela Tomjic to be the go-to hitter, nailed the close out kill for that set. Prsa had that kill in the second set. Each had a double double, Bjelica with 21 kills and 16 digs and Prsa 14 kills and 18 digs. Gonzalez had 15 kills. Andrea Lakovic had 14. Renele Forde's 40 assists were a team high as were Chanel Araujo's 24 digs.