Let's break it down -- FIU vs. Western Kentucky. Winner dances. Loser slumps home to cry in their chocolate.
Part I takes place in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on the campus of Middle Tennessee State. This would be the Sun Belt Conference tournament women's soccer championship. Standing between No. 2 seed FIU and an NCAA tournament bid as Sun Belt champion is No. 4 seed Western Kentucky. Now, I'd just offhand predict an FIU victory as the Panthers showed tremendous heart and leadership in turning their season around after several early games they controlled, but didn't win followed by a 7-0 wasting by Oregon State.
Remember my golf-auto racing analogy from the FIU-Arkansas State pregame post? Applied here would be a team spinning, heading for a low wall and an ugly fate. Instead, they didn't just survive, they kept it off the wall with a 2-1 win over Oregon two days after the Oregon State shellacking and motored to a 11-1-2 record since then. They pulled a team sport version of Danny Sullivan's Spin 'n' Win.
But keeping me from an instant prediction that FIU's train keeps a-rollin' is when the two teams met in the regular season both teams had 14 shots at goal, six shots on goal and no shots in the goal. Granted, that was at Bowling Green and this is a neutral site game. But Western lives by defense. In 21 games, the Lady Toppers (ridiculous name) have scored 29 goals and allowed only 17. FIU, with the same 13-6-2 record, has scored 33 goals and allowed 25. Granted, seven of those were in one game, so outside that game, the Panthers goals per game allowed almost equal Western's, 0.90 just above Western's 0.81. Western's Libby Stout got the All-Sun Belt goalkeeper spot.
I don't trust defense-heavy teams in big soccer games. They tend to get so tight, you want to feed them Ex-Lax like M&Ms. They forget that, at some point, you've got to score. I think back to how Italy, which hadn't attacked since World War II, faced wonderfully talented Brazil in the 1982 World Cup, they opened up and won 3-2. In the 1994 World Cup Final, Italy packed it in, barely had possession, got their 0-0 and lost on penalty kicks (as silly a way to decide a title as the shootout in hockey, which is as silly as counting points scored in college overtime the same in team and individual statistics as regulation point).
I say late in the first half, Chelsea Leiva sets up Ashleigh Shim for a goal. Western tries an early second half wave, but FIU's too good at possession. A counter goal puts FIU up 2-0. Forced out of a defensive posture, Western can't get what they want and only half of what they need. FIU comes home 2-1, wins the Sun Belt and a berth in the program's first NCAA tournament in 18 years.
At least, that's one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.
PART II -- FOOTBALL
Back when I was in elementary school, we had these Houghton-Mifflin readers. Early soft cover ones were named after animals such as "Tigers" and "Lions" then you moved up to hardcover books with names like "Rainbows," "Panorama" and "Kaleidoscope" with appropriately trippy 1970s art on the cover. The very first of these readers was "You Can Learn to Read."
I never stopped laughing at the cover and title -- "no kidding, did that three years ago," I thought -- but inside I suspect was the Western Kentucky offensive game plan.
It's the old Walter Payton game plan before the Bears collected quarterback Jim McMahon and the players for the 46 Defense: Walter right, Walter left, Walter up the middle, pass to Walter, halfback option pass from Walter, punt (or Walter quick kick). That's Rainey with Western Kentucky. He's even two for two passing for 48 yards and a touchdown.
Quarterback Kawaun Jakes completes 57.1 percent of his passes to Rainey and a receiving corps that's about as scary as undercooked pasta. Jakes' longest completion of the year is 42 yards...to Rainey, of course. Jakes can boast of a 39-yarder to Jack Doyle. By comparison, FIU has six players with a pass reception covering more than 42 yards.
Defensive tackle Joshua Forney's supposed to play, but is questionable on how many plays. I don't know if he plays much, if at all. If FIU's defensive tackles, especially Andre Pound and Isame Faciane, dominate inside, Rainey will find himself handicapped by having to carry linebacker Winston Fraser.
On offense, FIU needs to do what they do. In the Panthers case, that means swing from the heels and for the fences. Embrace the big play. If ever there was a game to get all your big play people on the field and touching the ball early, this afternoon in Bowling Green, Kentucky is it. Nothing sucks a little bit of heart out of a team than to grind and push the ball down the field for nothing or a field goal, then get socked back with a three-to-five play touchdown drive. That happens a couple of times and it slowly drains the resolve, drip by drip.
Early in the season, I was convinced we'd have seen a kickoff return for a touchdown by now, either by T.Y. Hilton or against FIU's porous kick coverage. No fools they (at least as far as kickoffs), teams tend to kick away from Hilton. On the other side, the Panthers have improved greatly on kick coverage. Stil, Western averages 27.3 yards per return and has two players, John Evans and Antonio Andrews over 29 yards per return.
Look for some quick openers early, maybe a counter or a misdirection. Western's athletic, but gives up 147.5 yards per game on the ground. And they have only 13 sacks. Look for Wesley Carroll to go deep after a few probing shots at Western.
FIU gets some early points, 10 maybe 14.Western uses special teams, probably a long kickoff return, to get back into it. Rainey breaks free and runs Western into position for the go-ahead score. That's when Jakes throws another interception. A few plays later, a bomb puts Western down. This time, unlike other times they've had 10-point season half leads, FIU finishes the job. They come home 27-14.
That's one black man's opinion, I could be wrong.
A sixth straight win, Friday’s 3-0 (25-17, 25-22, 25-18) blasting of Louisiana-Monroe, seems a good time to talk a little Bjelica.
If you had to pick a pentathlon winner, the best athlete, from the volleyball team just on the eye test, you’d take hitter Jovana Bjelica, the Sun Belt Player of the Week each of the last two weeks. The 5-11 Bjelica possesses a look both sleek and mesomorphic, exuding explosiveness for the sprints and jumps and enough overall strength for the throwing events.
A peek at Bjelica’s genes certainly wouldn’t dissuade you. Dad played pro basketball. Mom sprinted for Yugoslavia’s national track team. Grandma played volleyball. And, yes, Bjelica tried the sprints, long jump and high jump when encouraged to run track as a teen.
“I was pretty good actually,” Bjelica said. “But that sport was boring. It wasn’t creative. You just know what you need to do. Nothing was changing. Not like here, in volleyball, everything is changing second to second.”
So, I felt comfortable assuming Bjelica’s superior athleticism produced her superior hitting ability when I asked FIU coach Danijela Tomic about that.
My assured spike got rejected.
“She’s not the tallest player, but she can jump, she’s very strong in her lower body,” Tomic said. “It’s not really physical. She has a very high volleyball IQ. That’s what separates her from other players. You can have a great athlete who can jump higher than her, can hit ball harder than her, but they don’t have same volleyball IQ.”
When I asked Tomic to explain how Bjelica uses her volleyball IQ, she elaborated, “She sees the block really well. Many hitters don’t see the block. She sees the other side of the court. For example, this past week (now, actually two weeks ago), the set was pretty tight, she had two blocks, she just tapped the ball, just played the ball off of the blocks so she could play it again. She didn’t try to swing it hard and get blocked, just intentionally soft hit or she could play it again or somebody behind in our defense. Or, if she sees two blocks, she’s going to use the outside hand of the hitter.”
Tomic pointed to Bjelica’s hitting percentage in her 31-kill match Oct. 21 against Arkansas State, when Bjelica pounded out the final points in a five-set win. In racking up the third most kills in FIU history, behind two matches by quadruple All-American Yamir Rosa, Bjelica’s hitting percentage was .424. That’s like knocking down 50 points on 60 pct. shooting from the field. Her situation recognition, Tomic said, made her hits count.
Athleticism did propel coaches to play Bjelica up – with 16-year-olds at 13, with grown women at 15 – once she took up volleyball. But, she felt her raw physical ability and knowledge of the game outdistanced weak fundamentals at 15.
Bjelica’s gotten on a roll even after losing main setter Renele Forde to a thigh injury in late September. Redshirt freshman Jessica Egan, also 6-2, adroitly assumed the position she’d shared with Forde. Friday, she got her second double-double of the season with 18 assists and 14 digs.
“Egan is doing an outstanding job right now, the way she runs the offense, she’s making really good decisions,” Tomic said. “Tactically, she’s doing a very good job. She’s developing the personality of a setter, a leader on the court. She’s getting more confidence because of the way she’s playing, the way her hitters are hitting. You can see it in her demeanor on the court. Egan’s one of the hardest working player on the team.
“I told Egan after that first weekend she played when Renele was injured, this position is hers to lose.”
Bjelica said, “Renele was older, she knew the game a little better. I think Egan is doing a great job. I’m really proud of her. She’s improved so much in the month she’s played. I think she’s doing great and I think she can do much better.”
Using the way Bjelica’s worked with Egan as an example, Tomic said, “If she wants to go into coaching. She could be a very good coach. She thinks the game. “
Told that, Bjelica laughed, “No. Definitely not. Much more fun to be a player than a coach. I wouldn’t like to do it as my career. After I finish here, I would go play professional, then come back here to be an assistant. But I don’t want that to be my career. That’s why I came here to finish school.”
She sees herself using her business degree to work in sports administration.
Huh. I’d always believed what I heard on “The White Shadow:” “Those who cannot do, teach. Those who cannot do or teach, administrate.”
Bjelica’s doing it just fine.