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A few thoughts from Arkansas State 34, FIU 16

Started this in a Waffle House in Jonesboro, postgame. There’s another one an exit up Highway 63. At this one, a woman tries to pick up more waitress shifts, a guy tells how his wife cheated on him with his brother during the few months the brother was out of prison and a few guys come tottering in squiring young women with ridiculous heels, animal print leggings and overdone makeup. Some Arkansas State football players get postgame grub.

Somewhere, there’s a metaphor for how FIU played this game, this worse-than-it-sounds 34-16 loss that sprayed seltzer in the face of every logical expectation.

Let’s stop searching for a metaphor and hear the summation. Or, two. Take the opening drive. T.Y. Hilton climbed air stairs to bring down a Wesley Carroll pass for 32 yards to the ASU 34. Next snap, left tackle Caylin Hauptmann false starts. Carroll runs for 1, then Kedrick Rhodes for 14 and another first down. This series of downs, center Giancarlo Revilla is called for being an ineligible man downfield on an incompletion off a Carroll scramble. FIU doesn’t recover from this, a third and 13 pass to Willis Wright on a short cross getting only 7 yards. Field goal attempt from 37 yards, just wide left.

Should Griffin have made it? Yep. Would it have gone through had it been 5 yards closer? Yep. Would the point be moot because, without either penalty, the drive would still be going? Possibly.

“It was (disappointing),” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “Penalties that are very easily avoidable. That stuff hurts us. We worked on it the last 10 days or so. Felt that we got a little better. We let the crowd effect us a little bit. It ended up hurting us. Put us in bad down and distance situations.”

The drive to FIU’s first field goal rolled along until a chop block by Revila on an incompletion meant, instead of a difficult third and 10 from the ASU 18, the Panthers faced second and 25 from the 33. A Rhodes run left third and 21. Again, maybe Griffin would’ve been called upon anyway, but as the saying goes, nobody’s got a third and 21 play in the playbook.

I’m of two minds on this. Some of this comes down to coaching. Cristobal has at times taken blame for some of the penalties of overaggression. Chop block penalties blow up drives the way chop blocks blow out knees. Then again, perhaps as I’ve mentioned before, if New England didn’t lead the league in false starts over its last two Super Bowl-winning seasons, it was among the top five and nobody would say the Patriots are poorly coached. But it also comes down to players just deciding to bear down and do what they’re supposed to do. This is basic stuff. Pre-snap penalties are undisciplined penalties. People think of unsportsmanlike conduct and late hit penalties as comprising the term “undisciplined penalties.” Not entirely. There’s self-discipline in doing the right thing, too. As I did last week, I reference John Madden from the era when he was still in touch with the coaching mindset and the game. He said people look at a team in suits, saying “sir” and “ma’am” and think, “What a well-disciplined team.” But, to Madden, if one of those guys jumped offside on third and short, that guy’s an undisciplined player, no matter what he wears or how well he speaks. If he doesn’t, he’s a disciplined player, no matter how late he partied the night before.


That brings us to summation No. 2, from Cristobal:

“The most important thing to do is to face reality. We’re not where we want to be as a football team. We’re not where we expect to be at this time of year. That’s the reality of it. As we talked about in the locker room, you face that. You confront that.”

And, “When I say play, I mean as an entire program. We’re not playing well enough, we’re not coaching well enough.”

Obviously. They’re making simple mistakes they weren’t earlier in the season. They haven’t improved. Good teams get better as the season moves along.

Though they knew Ryan Aplin could run, they seemed stunned by the repeated development. Cristobal seemed to blame the linebackers most of all:

“He’s tough as can be. There were several occasions where we do have him bottled up and he kind of gets out of there in pressure situations or assignment situations. He got loose, sometimes, he read it well and sometimes we busted at the linebacker position.”

A request to speak to linebacker Winston Fraser, made before I heard that, was nixed by Cristobal (in contrast to the last two college coaches I dealt with on anything resembling a regular basis, Dennis Erickson at UM and Bill Mallory at Indiana, Cristobal wants the media relations folks to run all interview requests, even postgame, by him first. Apparently, that’s become the norm in many programs. That’s not, however, a good way to prepare a young man for NFL life, one of the program’s stated goals.)

Coverage in the secondary improved, although, again, when Arkansas State wanted a big chunk, they got it more often than not or got a pass interference call. And speaking of those flags, if you’re going to interfere, interfere – Sam Miller twice got flagged on important completions, the 40-yard bomb off the end of quarter okeydoke when Arkansas State faked letting the quarter clock run out before running it out by running a play, and the ensuing touchdown. That’s the definition of fruitless. No fruit for Sam.

Both coaches and Carroll himself have criticized him for taking a sack instead of just throwing the ball away. I call those “Ken O’Brien sacks” after the 1980s Jets quarterback who would lead the league in sacks taken because he’d hang onto the ball until he found an open receiver or found himself under 550 pounds of pass rushers. Tuesday, Carroll made at least three smart throwaways to avoid taking a Ken O’Brien sack. One of them turned into a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty.

The pass interference penalty he drew late in the second quarter after getting behind the defense – three officials at the game and several from as far away as Texarkana threw flags on that one -- and the third quarter 46-yard touchdown bomb showed that T.Y. Hilton’s knee problem after his 33-yard second quarter kickoff return wasn’t serious.

“My knee kind of gave out on me,” Hilton said. “But that’s kind of my fault. I had no business playing with the kicker. Just give him one move and go with it or just run past him so that’s all me.”

Blood ran colder on the FIU sideline for those minutes Hilton was down and not from the 50-degree chill in the air. If the Panthers were scared, so were the Red Wolves for a different reason – they kicked away from Hilton the rest of the night. Hilton ended with 130 all-purpose yards.

Kicking and punting duties fell on the desk – or foot – of Jack Griffin. Cristobal wasn’t happy with Josh Brisk. He didn’t sound any happier about Griffin’s 34.8 yards per punt with a long of 43.

The conference title’s probably gone, what with both Louisiana-Lafayette (4-0 in the Sun Belt) and Arkansas State (3-0) with two fewer conference losses than 1-2 FIU. A bowl bid possibility fades unless FIU can run the table and, even then, they don’t travel particularly well.


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