Didn't see that coming.
That phrase sums up not only the game for all of us failed pregame analysts, but the way FIU's failed defense looked all night. Their unexpected seeming befuddlement in the face of that which they knew might be coming from a quirky, damaged team crumbled our prognastications.
They hoped to mount more of a pass rush with the front four. They didn't and Duke quarterback Sean Renfree eventually decided to start looking downfield for his favorable matchups (after a while, they seemed to be giving Sam Miller the treatment Terrell "Target" Buckley used to get in the NFL). OK, you're not getting there, not even bothering Renfree after a while. They knew this might be a problem. They got zero sacks against Duke last year. What was Plan B? Plan C or D for Changes, Drastic?
And when FIU went into man coverage, were they nearly physical enough with Duke's receivers? Rarely did there seem enough disruption of pattern, patterns similar to what Duke ran last year. Conner Vernon's officially 6-1, 200 -- and don't both FIU and the University of Miami wish they'd have offered him as he came out of Gulliver four years ago? -- but sophomore Jamison Crowder goes 5-9, 175. Hey, you're not getting the quarterback off his spot, help a brotha out.
Speaking of physical, Duke averaged 5.0 yards per carry in the first half. Josh Snead ran for 47 yards on seven carries. Juwan Thompason ran for 22 on five carries. FIU got manhandled by an experieced Duke line not usually expert in run blocking that looked more physically mature than the Panthers' in both the run game and pass protection.
Also, it's not as if FIU didn't know Duke had special short yardage and red zone packages for tight end/situation quarterback Brandon Connette. And, they knew when Connette lines up behind center and Renfree goes in motion, Connette's taking the ball on an option and likely keeping it. Heck, they knew it so well, the knowledge worked against them when they fell for the okeydoke on Connette's play action and left David Reeves alone in the end zone for his first college catch. Yet, still, they rarely stopped Connette when they needed to do so. His first quarter touchdown run featured at least three missed takcles within 2 yards so even when FIU was in position, they didn't do enough to stop the pseudo option.
Check that: They did appear to do so four plays before that touchdown, on fourth and 2 from the FIU 25. Nobody at FIU will be taking care of Head Linesman John Hoffman's pets any time soon. The spot on Connette's run was greeted with "boy, generous spot!" by the local reporters around me in the press box. First down by inches. The next possession, the spot on Kedrick Rhodes' fourth-and-1 run from the Duke 4 might as well have been done by my 94-on-Tuesday grandmother in Lexington, Kentucky for all the relationship it had to reality. Officially, it was fourth and 1 from the 4. It was closer to fourth and 1 1/2 from the 5. Rhodes got past the 4 when he met the first tackler, whom he drove backwards a good half yard clear of the first down marker. Two other tacklers stopped his progress right over the extra point snap line, which is at the 3. The ball got marked a good yard behind that. My surrounding peers, again North Carolina-based reporters all, said various versions of "that's a terrible spot!" and were even confident it wouldn't withstand review. I agreed that the spot was atrocious, but didn't think review would overturn it. All spot challenges often do is show the randomness and difficulty in making the right call the first time.
Connette's run could've ended a drive and given FIU the ball -- albeit from the 24 -- with a 7-0 lead. Rhodes' run aborted that drive with FIU inside the Duke 5, perhaps about to retake the lead with a field goal or touchdown.
Bear Bryant used to say there are about six to eight plays that decide a football game, and the secret is to have the right players on the field for those plays. I agree with The Bear. I also think if you can't recover from a couple of first quarter disappointments like that, you're not mentally tough enough to win. So, yes, bad calls. Yes, could've changed the score and feel of the game early. No, not on the list of reasons FIU wound up on the sub side of a cosmetically close 20-point spanking.
Besides, there's no 4th and 2 for Connette if Richad Leonard doesn't fumble the punt to set Duke up in scoring range. And after the "stop" on Rhodes, Miller picked off Renfree to put FIU at the Duke 31. That wasn't a zebra who, with FIU running the ball well, called the reverse to Glenn Coleman on the first play following the interception. Terrible call, poorly executed. It would've been a huge loss even before Coleman fumbled the ball into a 17-yard loss. Only a turnover could've been worse.
The field goal attempt got partially blocked after a bad snap, the first of two bad snaps from Shae Smith, both of which led to blocked field goals. Senior Mitch McCluggage has been running around with a knee brace, but might have his job back. Those two snaps are why I'm always wondering, with any football team I cover, if the long snapper position has been addressed.
FIU's next drive ended when they, on third and 1 from their own 45, got cute. They ran freshman wide receiver Nick England onto the field late before the snap, then threw him the quick wide hitch they threw to Wayne Times the play before. True freshman, scrambling to get on the field, the first college pass thrown to him, maybe his first college play, on a third down you really want after Duke's taken momentum and the lead...anybody shocked at the drop? Putting England in that position wasn't fair to him.
Which brings us to another point: FIU never went under center in short yardage situations. That's not maximizing use of a big, strong quarterback behind a strong line.
They could've let Medlock loose more in the first half. That said, FIU came out of the first half with 14 points, 289 total yards, 104 rushing yards and 4.5 per carry even with the reverse fiasco. Medlock was 14 of 17 for 185 yards. One incompletion was a drop. He didn't throw an interception and didn't fumble -- heck, he recovered Coleman's fumble on the reverse. They got the field goal shot at the end of the half because Medlock drove them down there frantically on four completions. Tell most college coaches that's what you get out of an offense run by a guy in his third start, they'll take it and Russian kick dance out the door laughing.
Medlock wasn't the problem Saturday night. At all.
The second half, I'm skipping. After Duke went up by 30, the Blue Devils didn't need to play FIU honest. It was garbage time.
What's should be most disconcerting about this total team barf for FIU is the biggest heavers came from the areas that seemed the least of FIU's concerns. A great season is still possible. I just don't remember a college-affiliated team having one after opening the season in such a manner.
Happy Labor Day!