I’m writing this about six hours after I got home from FIU Stadium, three hours after I pushed myself off the couch and into bed. Though cleanliness of copy might be next to Godliness, I usually fall short of that under the best of circumstances. Now, I aim not for artistry, but coherence.
As of right now, Jake Medlock hasn’t been declared done for the season to my knowledge. With what I know of Medlock, his injury and foot injuries in general –- from 2008-10, I was surrounded by them between the Dolphins and my wife, the latter under the deft care of Dr. Michael Wittels, father of Garret – I would be surprised if we see Medlock before November.
That means freshman E.J. Hilliard at quarterback. FIU doesn’t have a choice. They could get away with Lorenzo Hammonds Jr. for a half or a few quarters if they were doing some serious land-locked road grading on the opponent. But for an entire half against a Louisville and for entire games against the rest of the schedule, FIU needs a quarterback with an accurate arm. Medlock had it going Saturday, 10 of 16 for 116 yards, and the line plowed the row fine. Take out sacks, scrambles and the kneel down and the real rushing numbers were 31 carries for 134 yards. Not bad for a team that was down to two healthy running backs by the end of the first quarter.
(Poor Darian Mallary. He almost bounced in place Wednesday, such excitement exploded inside him for the game against his younger brother, Louisville cornerback Andrew Johnson. When he was flat on the ground for several minutes with coaches and medical staff surrounding him, I thought of his brother, stepping away from the Louisville huddle to peer in concern; and their mother. That he got up and off the field drew sighs of relief all around the stadium. But he could be out with a concussion.)
You can’t fault Hilliard for Saturday’s loss. In his first three college three drives, he went nine of 10 for 82 yards and a touchdown, a lovely fade that Jacob Younger brought down with great extension. He showed accuracy, awareness and mobility. His only incompletion came after a botched fourth-and-2 snap, when he had the presence of mind to scoop it up, look downfield and make a throw that just missed Jairus Williams.
Unclean snaps. Unclean punt returns. It’s too late in the season for that.
You could see Hilliard trying to accelerate his thinking to college-game speed. I asked Cristobal this week if Hilliard possessed similarities to his pal, Teddy Bridgewater. Cristobal said the difference was Bridgewater’s experience at the position, not just in college, but high school and beyond.
Speaking of Bridgewater, I’m not sure where the luck fell Saturday. Did FIU get lucky that Bridgewater and his receivers seemed just a tad off? They had at least four drops. Or did Louisville get lucky because, as well as FIU played the Louisville passing game much of the night, even producing Bridgewater’s first two interceptions of the year, the Panthers still left plays on the field.
With FIU up 14-7, linebacker Winston Fraser slapped away a first and goal pass over the middle it looked like he could’ve picked off. Johnathan Cyprien couldn’t have been in better in position on the 1-yard touchdown pass that tied the game 14-14, but he never got his head around to see the ball.
Bridgewater’s third down pass before the roughing the kicker penalty that extended Louisville’s last drive tipped from his receiver into a pride of Panthers. That easily could’ve been an interception at least, game-tying Pick Six very possibly.
Give the defense a B- for the night. What could’ve been two key stops by the defense got undone by special teams. Again. Sam Miller returned punts Saturday in place of Richard Leonard. Miller’s lost muff after a three-and-out to open the second half sank the spirits. Instead of Hilliard coming onto the field for his first drive at the FIU 44 in a 14-14 game, he came on at the FIU 28 down 21-14.
Then, when Louisville inexplicably – considering Chuck Grace’s interception that helped get FIU back in the game – threw on first and third down while up 28-21, FIU got ready to get the ball back with two timeouts, a confident offense and time to work. The Panthers just missed getting Ryan Johnson’s punt, as they just missed all night. But, this time, T.J. Lowder ran into Johnson. Flag, drive extended.
De’Andre Jasper got into action on kickoff returns and, yes, looks quite fast. Like most guys who just flew around people at the previous level, he’s going to have to learn life’s not always better when you dip outside to space. That said, Jasper’s going to be dangerous whenever he gets the ball in his hands.
Jeremiah Harden ran like a man unleashed. He thought he got a bad spot on the fourth down run. I would’ve gone for the field goal. It’s not playing the result, but playing psychology and the play. Take the second part first: FIU had moved the ball on Louisville on that drive and in the first half. With so much time left in the game, there was no reason to think this was a rare shot at a touchdown. Get points.
To the psychological argument: FIU just needed something positive on the scoreboard at that point. Miller’s muffed punt clearly deflated the defense and roused Louisville, considering the ease of that three-play 46-yard drive that put the Cardinals up 21-14. A true freshman in his first college action moved his team into scoring range against the defense of a ranked team. Nonchalantly taking the field goal in this circumstance tells both teams, “No big deal. We know there’s more where that came from and this quarterback can get it for us. Be back later.”
I don’t think it’s an accident that Louisville drove 90 yards after that, keeping the ball for 14 plays and 8:09, converting three third downs.
As to the spot, well…FIU got few breaks from the Big East crew. I never believe imbalance in penalties, such as Saturday’s 11 to 5, is empirical evidence of bias. Some teams commit more penalties than others. Hey, the zebras didn’t have 13 guys on the field for FIU in a goal line defense situation, then take off only one so that FIU got flagged for too-many-men again. Who was running the personnel deployment for FIU, Don Cherry?
Still, the timing of some FIU penalties seemed awfully convenient as did the timing of some no-calls on Louisville. The holding flag on Hilliard’s scramble to the Louisville 1 fell after Hilliard’s kind of rapid lope running style had taken him well downfield. The Harden fourth-down stop occurred later. His later 23-yard scramble also drew well-timed flags. Yet some questionable Louisville blocks on third downs got the official go-ahead.
The 15-yard helmet-to-helmet call on Johnathan Cyprien really goosed the end-of-first-half drive. Instead of third and 5 from the Cardinals’ 28, Louisville had first and 10 at the 43. Good call? I couldn’t tell from my vantage point. Cristobal, who said he wouldn’t change a thing Cyprien did on that play, looked ready to put out a contract on the zebras by halftime.
Don’t expect much better in the coming weeks. All logic said coming into the season FIU wouldn’t get much help from the Sun Belt officials. I thought they might if they got off to a good start. The Duke game dispelled that notion. Now, at 1-3 going into Sun Belt play, they’re like Battling Siki fighting Mike McTeague for the title in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day (Siki lost the decision and the title he won below).
Cristobal said they were playing Jacob Younger too many snaps each game, 75 to 80. That’s why this game saw more Mike Jean-Louis (two catches, 13 yards), freshman Nick England and freshman Raymond Jackson.
Things that make me feel old: seeing James Burgess, out of Homestead High, on Louisville’s roster. I covered James Burgess when he played at Homestead High. James Burgess, Sr., that is.
Sophomore Colby Burdette's overtime goal in the 99th minute gave FIU a 2-1 win against Stetson and a 6-1-1 record this season. Burdette also assisted on junior Gonzalo Frechilla's 60th minute marker that tied the game 1-1.