The Mario Cristobal business took up my time Wednesday when I planned to finish and file this. That, I'm sorry about.
I usually do the postgame blog during the wind down of game night, often filing in the wee hours. It’s one thing to do that, get three to four hours sleep, then drive 15 minutes to The Cushman School or to an airport, 20 minutes to Still Joe Robbie Stadium To Me to help cover a Dolphins game, or drag my daughter 20 minutes in a wagon to Flamingo Park or handle the back end of a sleepover. I can caffeine power through that. It’s another to do that before driving four hours while phoning and texting to find out what’s up with the head football coach. Same reason I started the postgame blog, but didn’t finish and file before a 90-minute, predawn drive on unfamiliar roads to the Memphis Airport following the Arkansas State loss. It’s not smart or safe.
For those who have a problem with that, sorry. Actually, I’m not sorry, you’ll just have to get over it.
FIU looked rusty physically, stale otherwise. Five pre-snap penalties, more missed makeable throws, blocks, reads than usual. Ironically, in answering a question of mine about bowl game rust last week, Mario Cristobal said you have to come out with something new even if it’s just for show or a talented team studying you for three weeks eats you up.
I could be wrong, but it seemed the biggest new wrinkles with FIU offensively were in personnel. Redshirt sophomore Jairus Williams got targeted on the first series. Redshirt junior wide receiver Mike Jean-Louis made his first catch of the season. Running back Robert Boswell was out there in the fourth quarter in five-wide sets. Some defensive guys got unusual playing time.
“Lot of injuries,” Cristobal said after the game. “We had a fractured shoulder, a couple of other guys dinged up, a couple of possible concussions. You never want to run the risk when a guy gets dinged up and you’re not certain about how he’s responding.”
Unfortunately for FIU, the game’s most valuable substitute turned out to be Marshall left tackle Jordan Jeffries. Starting left tackle Ryan Tillman hopped toward the sideline after the game’s first play. Jeffries played the rest of the way and, in the fourth quarter, it was Jeffries who fell on Marshall running back Travon Van’s fumble one play after the blocked punt gave Marshall the ball at the FIU 23. Without that play, there’s no Tyler Warner field goal and no touchdown pass to Aaron Dobson with 30 seconds left.
Defensively, FIU looked as if it showed more pre-snap movement. Marshall was only six of 17 on third down and their 59-yard total offense advantage is right there on their final possession, the 60-yard final drive to that second Dobson touchdown. Both defenses hung in well. Marshall tackled well, a big key to the game. The Herd felt in the games they gave up points by the peck, they had too many blown tackles. They were strong practitioners of that lost art Tuesday.
Marshall’s offense just came up with the two biggest plays and Marshall’s kicking game won that matchup.
Heck, Sam Miller even had good coverage on the first Dobson touchdown. That play points up FIU’s size liability at cornerback, however. Several times this season, Miller or Jose Cheeseborough or Richard Leonard has been on the spot, but been too overmatched in size to prevent the catch, even by interference. Not everybody can have a big beast like Ronnie Lott at cornerback (people forget he came into the NFL as a corner and actually was even better there his first few NFL seasons than he was as an all-time great safety), but a few more inches of height or length on Miller might’ve prevented that 31-yard touchdown right before the half. Rakeem Cato made a near perfect throw, as he did on a couple of big plays, including the heave with a leaping James Jones in his face that Jermaine Kelson caught with one hand for a 25-yard gain in the first quarter.
The punting numbers look equal at a glance: 40.1 for Marshall’s Kase Whitehead, 40.0 for FIU’s Josh Brisk; three inside the 20 for each; longs of 46 for Whitehead, 48 for Brisk.
Whitehead’s punts seemed to describe The Arch in St. Louis. Brisk’s described a parabola. FIU couldn’t get off one return. Marshall’s Andre Booker returned four punts for 57 yards. In a defensive battle, that’s valuable land. As FIU lined up for the punt that would be blocked, I thought, “They need a good punt to change the field. The way this is going, Marshall’s going to be in position on this possession or next to win with a first down and field goal.”
One offensive wrinkle that might’ve helped FIU – an under center quarterback sneak. Look at the third quarter turn of events.
Hilton scooped a pass over the middle before going down somewhere around the first down line. Officials marked it, measured it and found FIU a midget’s forearm short of a first down. Fourth and a wrist.
FIU calls timeout to challenge the spot. I’ve seen spots changed in the replay era. Far, far, FAR more often, I’ve seen the spot remain via replay confirming the spot; inconclusive evidence (the most common one for something that as judgmental as a spot); or officials just being stubborn about supporting the judgment of one of their own. Sure enough, the spot didn’t change.
FIU punted. At your own 43, 10-10 with 6:41 left in the third quarter, when you’ve gotten stuffed on third and short earlier and aren’t the best short yardage team, punting is the safe move in a field position game. Safe doesn’t always get it done, however. FIU basically used up a timeout, always a valuable commodity in a tight game, to send a message that it’s not confident its offensive line can gain a loaf of bread against Marshall.
Marshall, meanwhile, faced with fourth and 5 on FIU’s 35 with 38 seconds left and a 13-10 lead just needed a first down to end the game. Instead of settling for the decision, they went for the knockout and got the 35-yard touchdown pass from Cato to Dobson.
Smart move? Debatable. I saw Denver do the same thing against Pittsburgh during the Steelers’ Steel Curtain era in the 1977 AFC Divisional Playoff game, the game that made a star out of Denver linebacker and now longtime ESPN studio analyst Tom Jackson. Similar pattern, too, run by a receiver with a similar last name (Jack Dolbin). A safe move? Oh, no. Any number of things could’ve gone wrong for Marshall on that play. Cato could’ve been sacked for a loss that would’ve given FIU the ball at the FIU 40 or better, a couple of nice passes from Jack Griffin field goal range. He could’ve been sacked for a loss and fumbled (See, “Central Florida,” “Jeff Godfrey,” “Tevin Blanchard,” “Isame Faciane”). The pass could’ve been blocked by a lineman and intercepted.
Instead, it was the Joe Frazier left hook that dropped Ali in the 15th round of their first fight. It clinched the decision for Marshall.
FIU ends the season 8-5, having led in every game and with 39 of 44 on their offensive and defensive two-deep returning. Most college programs would take that setup.