Just because they expected to beat Louisville doesn’t mean they didn’t enjoy it.
Especially head coach Mario Cristobal, who I thought would break something on someone with his ferocious hugs, high fives, chest bumps after the game. Yet he was the physical manifestation of the roar out of the locker room from the players. That sound comes for a deep hunger for something. On this evening, that something was “respect.”
They beat a team from outside the Sun Belt, a team from a conference with an automatic BCS bowl bid.
“We knew it was going to happen one day,” defensive end Tourek Williams said. “We had to keep working and working and pushing. I came into this program knowing I would help push it to the next level.”
(Williams came back from one of the scarier plays of the night, going helmet to helmet with James Jones as they combined on a sack. After Williams head snapped back like he took an Ali right cross, he tried to run off the field, but staggered and fell. He had to be helped to the sideline after a few minutes on his back.
“Just a little head butt,” Williams laughed. “Everything’s good. I’m straightened out.”)
Every player or coach who had a choice has been told he made a mistake going to FIU. Hilton recalled winding up at FIU because his son chose FIU’s hat eight consecutive times when placed on the bed next to a West Virginia hat. Think he hasn’t been told at some point how big he’d be if he were blowing up the bigger stage in the Big East, Louisville’s conference?
They might not publicly talk trash or speak the modern version of “in your face,” but they longed for that game to point to and say “told you.” Coaches long for a game to point at while recruiting and say, “we can do this again and again with you. We’re just getting better.”
The challenge now, of course, is doing it again against Central Florida, which, to me, is the most talented team on FIU's schedule. It’s hard sometimes for grown men to ground themselves again after such a win. These are young men capable of the pre-adulthood grand emotional swings that draw fans to college sports. This week will test their maturity, as well as their mettle and their mantra: “1-0, every week.”
Football’s a funny game.
FIU got moved around in the first half, on both sides of the ball. Yet with three big blows, the Golden Panthers took a 21-3 lead. Winston Fraser’s 71-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter might’ve been the biggest play of the game. That was a 10-point, possibly 14-point swing the way Louisville was moving the ball.
And unless some Sun Belter turns in a Ronnie Lott, Lawrence Taylor or Bob Lilly performance Saturday, Fraser will get my vote this week for conference Defensive Player of the Week.
In the second half, which they lost 7-3, they took over defensively, although they still found going through Louisville’s defensive middle akin to swimming through boulders.
Louisville exposed some FIU weaknesses. Towering tight end Josh Chichester, six catches for 111 yards, proved an impossible matchup for FIU, too big for defensive backs and too much maneuverability for linebackers. FIU's better at attacking the flanks with the run, something that would seem obvious with their team speed even if they didn't get destroyed inside by Louisville. Jeremiah Harden, Kedrick Rhodes and Darriet Perry contributed only 53 yards on 23 carries.
That said, a game that retained some drama better than it did the crowd that headed for the exits at 24-10 with 6:00 left could’ve been a true spanking by FIU.
Remember the Comedy Central game show that got Jimmy Kimmel’s career rolling, Win Ben Stein’s Money? By midway through Friday night, FIU could’ve played Take Will Stein’s Lunch Money at will. When Louisville got into passing situations and FIU brought the company, Stein looked like a rabbit on the run. A couple of times, he turned into a resourceful Bugs Bunny to create a play out of nothing. Most of the time, he just got boiled. Fraser's interception came on a blitz on third and long. FIU also rolled up 6 sacks, two by blitzing cornerback Sam Miller, two by Williams, one by Isame Faciane and one by Joshua Forney.
Yet for extended stretches, FIU locked into or got locked onto a four-man rush. That happened on Louisville’s touchdown drive to end the first half and Stein jitterbugged the Cardinals downfield for what could’ve been a momentum-turning touchdown.
Instead, a holding penalty on the kickoff cost Louisville about 33 yards of field position, FIU got Louisville into a third and 8 and blitzed Stein into a sack by Sam Miller. FIU took the ball and drove 39 yards to a field goal that put a two-touchdown deficit, 24-10, in Louisville’s back. You could almost feel Louisville sag.
“I always tell them the first five minutes of the second half are so critical,” Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. “We didn’t get established. We returned the ball out to the 15. If we don’t get that penalty, it’s to the 50. We still would’ve had a chance.”
Aside from the flambé job Hilton and Wesley Carroll did, FIU let Louisville’s cornerbacks off the hook much of the night. Had they attacked more, we could’ve been in garbage time by the fourth quarter.
Friday’s advance story on the game in The Courier-Journal focused on Louisville’s efforts to stop Hilton with the biggest picture of Hilton that’s run outside of South Florida. The anticipation and curiosity could be heard in snatches of the parking lot conversation as I walked toward and around Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium (in the Howard Schnellenberger Football Complex). How good is this guy?
The answer came on the opening kickoff, which Hilton returned 36 yards. It wasn’t that it was such a great return. It was that it was a very good return, but done without much special – pretty good blocking that could’ve been better and Hilton seemed to be almost in rapid stroll, instead of full run. It was like shaking hands with an immensely strong person who doesn’t feel the need to show off – you can still sense all that you don’t see and instantly know how dangerous that can be.
Here’s Hilton on his first touchdown, a slant that he turned up for 74 yards like Hot Wheels blowing through Matchbox: “They blitzed my man. I told Wes, ‘Here he comes, here he comes.’ And he looked at me like, ‘I got him.’ They rolled a safety down and I gave him a quick move, used my quickness to my advantage. Once I caught it, I just shot past him.”
Louisville coach Charlie Strong said, “That first slant he caught, we were in man coverage. We actually had double coverage. He split the guys and ended up taking it the distance.”
Hilton on the 83-yarder: “On the second, they rolled the linebacker (Dexter Heyman) on me. I looked at Wes again, like, ‘it’s a linebacker.’ He looked the safety off and came to me across the middle.”
Strong said, “The third down play, we blitzed. Our safety got caught in a little hole and he just ran by.”
Carroll said, “That’s the thing about this defense. You take gambles by playing man-to-man. If you want to play man-to-man against T.Y., and he catches the ball, it’s going to be a touchdown because (the cornerback has) got no help. There might be a safety that’s deep. But with TY’s speed, if that guy doesn’t get him down initially, it’s going to be a big play.”
In the next 30 minutes, T.Y. Hilton went from a name for college football cognescenti to a name trending worldwide on Twitter. Heisman? Slow down. But if he's not on your watch list -- and he wasn't on the ones I get updated on each week -- then your list has a credibility gap about the size of the one in the Louisville secondary that Hilton ran through.
The zebras had an interesting night.
Hilton making a sort-of fair catch wave, then taking off with a punt last week brought half the North Texas coaching staff off the bench screaming for a penalty. This week, he got flagged. Good call from my vantage point.
Caddyshack’s Al Czervik claiming a ricocheting golf ball broke his forearm was more convincing than Greg Hickman’s calf “cramp” as Louisville rushed to the line in a hurry up offense. When Hickman was asked after the game if he was OK, Tourek Williams, standing off Hickman’s left shoulder, didn’t even bother trying to hold in his laughter.
You can’t say this kept FIU from putting the game away because offensive consistency proved more elusive than T.Y. Hilton on this night. Still, FIU was driving with a third and 6 on the Louisville 28 up 21-3 when an officiating gaffe helped kill the drive. Before the snap, Louisville’s defensive end flinched, FIU left tackle Caylin Hauptmann moved and left guard Kevin Van Kirk fidgeted also. Somewhere in that mess, there was a penalty, probably two that should’ve halted the play.
It looked to me like Wesley Carroll saw it, too. Carroll didn’t exactly skedaddle from Dexter Heyman, who recorded a 12-yard sack. Instead of third and 11 or a third and 1, FIU faced fourth and 18 from the Cardinals’ 40.