What we’ve seen from FIU over the last month:
Slopping about and losing prompts anger. Slopping about, but winning with some difficulty against a lousy opponent prompts annoyance. Slopping about, but winning against an opponent with some talent prompts giddiness – especially if you’ve saved your season.
That’s what we’ve seen from FIU over the last month, most recently in the Tuesday night-early Wednesday a.m. moments after a fun, flawed, augmented, drama-drenched 23-20 overtime win against Troy. Wesley Carroll, usually coolly happy or frustrated into rote cliché, didn’t just laugh, he seemed on the verge of giggling. Mario Cristobal chuckled, joked about his demeanor after a first half of flags, fumbles and assorted foibles ("Oh, there was some talk in the locker room. Good thing we had the doors closed.")
Maybe it’s that, acknowledging media deadlines or just the lateness of the hour, Cristobal and the players entered the postgame media conferences much sooner than usual. I don’t think so, though. Wins against Louisville and Central Florida prompted fist pumps, flying chest and hip bumps. This was more the “phew, that was close. You OK?” after your tire blows at 80 on I-95, but you keep it out of the ditch and the semi misses you.
Or, the other side’s kicker misses to the left – twice.
“He pulled them,” Troy coach Larry Blakeney said of kicker Michael Taylor’s second extra point attempt and the 43-yard overtime field goal attempt. “He flat out pulled them. That’s the one little problem he has.”
Actually, when Taylor clanked his second extra point off the left upright, it didn’t keep Troy from winning in regulation. It just opened the door to overtime. If FIU trailed 21-17 with 3:31 left and fourth and 2 at the Troy 3-yard line, they’d have gone for it. That opens another of possibilities, most of which end at a winner decided after 60 minutes. But at 20-17, FIU took the safe route and we got overtime.
Tuesday’s imperfections kept the game as entertaining even while being exasperating. Somebody on Twitter said during the fourth quarter that I must be falling asleep in the press box from the bad football. No, that would’ve been Sunday’s first 55 minutes of the Dolphins game – awful and excruciating to watch. Tuesday could’ve kept me riveted even if I had been at home with pizza, Long Islands and the DirectTV universe at my command. So many moments of “Ooo, nice play!” “C’mon, man!” “Oh, my goodness!” “Whoa!” “That’s some ridiculous stuff there!”
Dealing with Troy’s go-go offensive pace concerned FIU. As Cristobal pointed out, they also substitute late before the snap, making defensive adjustments difficult. Tourek Willams said, “We had a package where we added two defensive ends and took two defensive tackles out. We wanted more speed on the field.”
Also, give the FIU defense credit for not getting spastic in the face of Troy’s pace. No offside penalties. Williams, matched against redshirt freshman right tackle Terrence Jones, had two sacks and several pressures. The right side of Troy’s line needed a kiddie menu, with Jones and freshman guard Zach Johnson. Most of Troy’s big runs came around the left side, where 6-4, 312-pound left tackle James Brown can make a running back look like Jim Brown.
Troy, whose running game previously just let quarterback Corey Robinson rest his arm, actually ran well, with backs Shawn Southward and D.J. Taylor picking up 95 yards and two touchdowns on only 13 carries. But they couldn’t protect Robinson and their receivers kept running the four-yards-short-of-the-marker third down patterns that the Dolphins run so well. FIU squatted on those routes and tackled better than they have in a month. Troy made no adjustments after a first half with only four first downs and zero third down conversions. Overall the last two weeks, FIU’s downfield coverage has improved. Troy threw for only 215 yards on 20 of 34 passing. They ran only 59 plays, 18 below their average.
FIU’s offensive line was the Panthers’ game in microcosm. Their first half penalties -- two holds on left tackle Caylin Hauptmann, a hold on Rupert Bryan, two false starts on Bryan in the same series – interrupted more drives than Dolphin Expressway wrecks. But Hauptmann, Bryan, left guard Shae Smith, center Giancarlo Revilla and right guard Curtis Bryant moved Troy well enough for Kedrick Rhodes’ 172 yards on 30 carries and Darriet Perry’s 60 yards on 12 carries. By the end, they were just buffaloing Troy to the side most plays and it wasn’t like the Trojans didn’t know what was coming.
Such as on the fourth quarter fourth and 1 from the FIU 39. If that ball’s snapped, everyone, his mama and his unborn grandkids know Perry’s getting it. And he did for 6 yards over the left side. In overtime, nobody thought FIU would risk an interception. Six Rhodes runs, 21 yards, chip shot Jack Griffin field goal.
Rhodes, who said they knew they’d have success on some zone blocking inside runs, has 762 rushing yards for the season. Unless the coaches really see something in the defense that says a brute force back or a pure speed back works better, they should ride Rhodes the rest of the season like Seattle Slew and use the other backs as just a change of pace or to give him a rest. Perry’s now second in FIU history with 1,703 career rushing yards.
Griffin’s kickoffs were much better than in previous weeks. His average kickoff length was 65.8 yards and FIU’s net yards were 46.2.
Josh Brisk averaged 37.6 yards per punt, an average dragged down by his last punt, a 14-yarder in the final seconds of regulation. That left Troy a chance to Fredo the Panthers with a Hail Mary from the 50. Justin Halley picked that one off, giving FIU four interceptions in the last three games.
Carroll’s got three interceptions in the last three games and admitted Tuesday’s was something “that shouldn’t have happened.” He threw downfield for an open tight end Jonathan Faucher not just off his back foot, but hopping backwards in the face of pressure.
That throw aside, Carroll ran FIU’s offense expertly. Here’s FIU’s offense: in the second half, Carroll completed only five of 15, but for 144 yards and two touchdowns. This is a slugger’s offense. I love that Carroll, with T.Y. Hilton taking regular snaps most of the night, hit other guys deep as he did in finding Wayne Times for the 76-yard score and stepping up almost beyond the pocket to hit Jacob Younger for a 43-yarder on third and 21. Hilton’s FIU’s Ferrari, but he’s not the only potential playmaker in the Panthers garage. Several times this season, under a modicum of duress, Carroll has tried to make a tougher throw to a multi-covered Hilton rather than an easier downfield throw to a single covered receiver.
“It worked out exactly like we drew it up,” Carroll said. “Jacob Younger did a great job on his. Wayne Times beat man coverage. Great pre-snap read by everybody.”
Speaking of Hilton, the groan familiar to Dolphins fans late last season when they saw the increasingly ineffective Wildcat came from my throat each of the three times FIU lined up Hilton in the Wildcat Tuesday. With the base offense walking downfield in rhythm, the Hilton Wildcat couldn’t get in step.
The first time, a second and 1 from the Troy 20, they had moved the ball 50 yards in four plays, plus gotten a Troy offside. Perry got called for a false start (the only thing early in this town Tuesday – players on both sides of the ball moving before an FIU snap). Next time, first and 10 from the Troy 43 with a 47-yard drive working: Hilton carries left for a 2-yard loss. A punt ensued two plays later. The final time, FIU had driven 39 yards to the Troy 32 when Troy read the reverse to Coleman, who slipped for a 6-yard loss. That’s the series and drive that ended with the Younger touchdown, but you don’t get many 43-yard bombs on third and 21.
Hilton wound up with four catches for 62 yards and 161 all-purpose yards. He seemed a little ouchy late, although he looked roused after jawing with Troy's Xavier Lamb in the fourth quarter. Rhodes had 194 all-purpose yards.
Against Louisville and Central Florida, FIU demonstrated mental toughness at pivotal points that could’ve seen them collapse. Tuesday saw many such moments, most glaringly after a first half the Panthers owned everything but the scoreboard and, in the third quarter, Troy’s two touchdowns in 44 seconds to turn 17-7 into 20-17. A collapse at either time would’ve meant a collapse of the season.
Instead, they showed the maturity and strength from September that they didn’t show in Jonesboro last week. The Panthers sit 5-3, 2-2 in the Sun Belt. All they desire remains possible.