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A few thoughts on FIU 41, Akron 38 (OT)

I’ll try to keep this postgame blog more linear than the one-night miniseries of a game it analyzes. That said, most of its being written on short sleep while trying to keep the auditory lid on the back end of a sleepover, so if it gets as all over the place as Richard Leonard was Saturday, so be it.

Leonard, the sophomore cornerback, embodied the game for FIU: moments of excellence, moments of nice-but-want-more, moments of inadequacy. He showed why FIU likes him on punt returns, properly navigating well-blocked seams on a 49-yard punt return touchdown to put FIU up 28-20 in a wild fourth quarter. He showed why he might not be returning punts much longer when he committed his second punt return fumble in two weeks, this one leading to Akron’s field goal and a 28-23 score just when Akron’s offense seemed to be sagging before a revitalized FIU defense. He had two pass break ups, including a near interception in overtime. But he didn’t make that interception, just as senior safety Johnathan Cyprien dropped an interception the play before Akron’s third touchdown. And Leonard got flagged for pass interference on third and 8 from the FIU 36 when he never turned around to clearly play the ball on a sideline throw that wound up hitting him in the helmet. Akron took a 31-28 lead the following play when running back Jawon Chisholm beat linebacker Winston Fraser up the field.

It was that kind of game. So much to discuss, but it all boils down to this: little about FIU, notable exception for quarterback Jake Medlock, is as good as anticipated after the first two games.

Not the defense. Not the special teams. Not parts of the offense. Not even the crowd, which half-filled the stadium and a student section that went from packed to spotty during that insane fourth quarter. I know last week’s trouncing by Duke (which got the what for from Stanford Saturday night) sledgehammered the big toe on the fan base’s preseason expectations, but sheesh, a Saturday evening home opener against a 23-point underdog with the Hurricanes and Dolphins on the road…as Cartman would say, “Super weak.”

One thing you can say for the offense: they get it done in the two-minute drill. End of the first half against Duke, they got FIU into field goal range in less than a minute. End of the first half Saturday, a touchdown. End of the game, in position for a field goal. Well, after being in position for a touchdown with 28 seconds left and a timeout and only getting off a blown snap that pushed the ball back to the 13. Whether it was an early snap or just a Medlock muff, it was the second such play of the game. Ideally, that should happen maybe twice a season. With a new quarterback-center combination, up it to five times. Twice in a game? Too many.

Give some credit to quarterback Jake Medlock for spotting the height mismatch of 6-5 Jairus Williams on a not-6-5 Akron cornerback then throwing the fade to Williams for the pre-halftime touchdown. That’s something FIU didn’t do often enough last season. Down 20-14 at halftime feels very different than down 20-7.

Medlock said coaches told him, “Jake when its two-minute offense, it’s always the same. Play fast and slow it down in your head.”

As fans have begged for the last two seasons, FIU put Medlock under center in a short-yardage situation. In the Herald’s season preview, I wrote FIU might have a curve ball for these situations when they’d need a bowling ball. They threw that curve Saturday night, putting defensive lineman Greg Hickman at fullback in a package with Darian Mallary at tailback. Mallary carried for nothing on third and 1 from the Akron 5, then for a 5-yard touchdown on fourth down.

Hickman played fullback in high school: “In high school, I played anything. Long snapper, kicker, punt returner, anything I could do ot be on the field.

Mallary played because sophomore running back Kedrick Rhodes suffered an injury in the first half. After Medlock optioned Akron to death early on his way to an FIU record for quarterback rushing yards in a game, FIU couldn’t appear to get much push. The passing game got nothing going as receivers could create no separation and Medlock occasionally held the ball too long. Both Medlock and Rhodes took a pounding.

“I think he got winded like he did on those couple of long runs,” Cristobal said. “After that, we had to haul him back in. he just wan’t himself for a few series. Then, the second half, he started getting on that roll again.”

In the four consecutive three-and-outs of the first half, FIU blew a chance to wear down Akron earlier than it happened. Also, they didn’t work the Zips defense side-to-side like I thought they might. In the end, though, FIU put up 31 offensive points in regulation, helped by the Hickman interception that put the ball on the Akron 14. It’s Akron, not Alabama, but it’s still 31 offensive points and 428 yards of offense in regulation.

Most of the game, special teams continued to be spotty. Sam Miller’s 80-yard punt return touchdown got called back on an illegal block. Punt coverage set out the Welcome Home mat for Belen graduate Imani Davis. Senior kicker Jack Griffin pushed his first field goal attempt wide left. Then again, Griffin was doing double duty. Unhappy with Josh Brisk’s punts last week, FIU benched him for Griffin this week. Neither provided punts the coverage could get under unless your name was Jeremiah McKinnon. The freshman from Southridge made two nice tackles on Davis in punt coverage to immediately snuff returns and took fourth quarter snaps at cornerback.

Oh, Brisk’s benching included holding on field goals. Mitch MacCluggage was back long snapping, but tight end Zach Schaubhut took over holding for Griffin. No snap issues and Griffin nailed the kicks he most needed to hit, as he usually does. So special teams comes out on top after all is said and done.

“Maybe it’ll wake up Josh a little bit, come back strong this week and have a better week,” Cristobal said.

While poor-mouthing his way through his part of last Monday’s Mid-American Conference media conference call, Akron coach Terry Bowden said he hoped the Zips followed the maxim that the greatest improvement in their new offense’s execution would be from Week 1 to Week 2. Maybe it was. The Zips certainly looked like they knew what they were doing while it was FIU’s defense that once again appeared trapped in a Saturday-at-Calcutta-market  chaos. Usually, that chaos followed Akron running motion through the backfield, an action that seemed to mesmerize FIU almost as badly as it did last week against Duke.

“They ran some shifts and motions that caused confusion in our secondary and found away to get some mismatches for them,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “The quarterback did have some nicely placed balls, but a couple of them were wide open shots. We need to do a better job on that. When you go tempo like that, you’ve got to be able to adjust on the run.”

Again, that’s what you’d expect an experienced unit to be able to do. You don’t expect that kind of flummoxing in the first place.

On Akron’s first touchdown, I counted three FIU defenders frozen in electric football player poses. On Jawon Chisholm’s first touchdown catch, he went in motion to the left, circled out of the backfield, up the sideline and ran past linebacker Jordan Hunt, who originally looked well-positioned to make a play. The play before, a third and 5 from the FIU 24, showed exactly the kind of immaturity you don’t expect from an experienced defense. Defensive end Tourek Williams appeared to jump offside, but the real problem was instead of following through with the play, almost the entire FIU defense downshifted to neutral as if the play would be stopped. Most of the Zips offense did the same, but that group doesn’t have as many snaps in their memory bank. Akron’s Dalton Williams and Keith Sconiers kept playing and hooked up on a 13-yard completion for a first down. 

FIU finally got a pass rush going late in the game, a factor of talent and habitat – I lost two pounds just doing my customary tailgate walk before the game. I wondered how long it would take Akron to lose something.

FIU lost two replay challenges and I wasn’t surprised on either one. Both original calls happened at the end near the press box and looked wrong from where I sat. Vantage point isn’t everything. The referee and the head linesman framed Medlock getting blatantly horse-collared by J.D. Griggs late in regulation and made no call. Cristobal detonated on both. Make up calls quickly ensued – Cristobal didn’t get flagged himself for unsportsmanlike conduct and, two plays later, they gave FIU a pass interference gift on a pass whose catchable quality was dubious.

Now FIU goes to Central Florida, which lost to a slightly better team from Ohio Saturday and walloped Akron last week. You can’t use comparative scoring exclusively because games and seasons are about matchups. So it means little that comparative scoring says Central Florida should be a 39-point favorite over FIU, take it down to 35 for Akron having a game under its belt when entering La Cage Saturday night.

But, on the matchups, UCF’s across a chasm that FIU needs to bridge this week to keep from being embarrassed next week in Orlando.



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