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A few thoughts on UCF 33, FIU 20

When asked about quarterback Jake Medlock, who went off with a hand problem for half a fourth quarter touchdown drive, Mario Cristobal said he would be fine. But when asked about Rhodes, who left in the third quarter favoring his right ankle or foot, Cristobal admitted quietly, “He’s a little banged up.” He sounded a little worried. This is the second straight game Rhodes has had to be sidelined. Rhodes left the locker room with a big ice bag on his right foot and ankle.

Now, to the nitty, as Joe Bob Briggs used to say…

Jake Medlock was one for four passing before Kedrick Rhodes had one carry.

Shane Coleman got his first college carry before Kedrick Rhodes had one carry.

The Comcast Spots Southeast play-by-play folks, according to my Twitter timeline, blew three FIU names (“George Cristobal?”) before Kedrick Rhodes had one carry.

Kedrick Rhodes first carry went for 10 yards.

I understand and am a proponent of, calling plays with a slight randomness. Or, flat out taking the unexpected tack when negotiating a defense. But if it’s not working, get back to doing what you do and seeing how well you can work that. FIU didn’t until the second half when down 23-0.

Even with T.Y. Hilton, FIU’s offense worked off the run. (By the way, Wesley Carroll made the UCF game and dropped by the radio booth after seeing his high school team, St. Thomas Aquinas, fall to Don Bosco from New Jersey Friday night. Carroll’s staying in shape with the UFL restarting and a new version of the USFL starting. )

“The first half, we really weren’t running, we were trying to discover the pass,” running back Darian Mallary said. “We came in, we discussed that we were going to run the ball down their throats. It’s our offense. It’s what we’ve got to do. Whatever works for us, we’re going to keep doing it. If it’s not working, we’ve got to change it up.”

As anticipated, UCF adjusted after last week’s results in Columbus (Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller tore through UCF) and West Dade (Medlock runs for 141 on Akron). When FIU ran the read option, the Knights were going to take the ball out of Medlock’s hands.

“They were in squeeze technique and the guy had me all the way,” Medlock said. “That’s why I had to keep giving it.”

Here’s Rhodes’ first six carries: 10, 1, 2, 14, 5, minus 5 (on that last one, I think Medlock could’ve kept and dipped outside the right end, but, hey, not the point here). Normally, that would take us to the end of the first quarter. That was Rhodes’ entire first half workload. Mallary had three first half carries, two as FIU ran out the clock to halftime.

In the second half, FIU had 19 runs for 130 yards. One of those was a sack for a 10-yard loss, so really 18 runs for 140 yards while trying to come back from a 23-0 deficit. They had 11 planned runs in the first half while going from 0-0 to 23-0.

When throwing in the first half, Medlock (one of eight, 4 yards) was like a garden hose with the finger over the hole. There were plays to be had, most notably a short pass to tight end Akil Dan-Fodio, rumbling up the middle past linebackers and a secondary frozen by play action. Medlock so overthrew the pass that the 6-4 Dan-Fodio could get only an outstretched hand on it. Hit that and Dan-Fodio could’ve run halfway back home to Stone Mountain, Georgia.

None of this helped the defense, which clearly needs all the help it can get. The communication problems in the secondary continue. The first of several big passes to UCF wide receiver J.J. Worton saw him mosey into the secondary and get dropped like a cell phone into Brighthouse Networks Stadium. Boom, 36-yard gain, to set up the first UCF touchdown on the kind of error senior safety Johnathan Cyprien said this week the secondary’s been working to eliminate. One shudders to think what Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater (72 of 88 for 855 yards, five touchdowns, zero interceptions in three games) might do next week.

Tourek Williams called getting more pressure on Bortles in the second half “a matter of want-to.” They did get Bortles throwing off his back foot some. But, too often, FIU’s not getting there with a four-man rush and usually not getting there with five. Storm Johnson made some big plays, got stuffed on some runs. He’s that kind of back now. Brynn Harvey ran well on FIU, especially in the first half. The defense, again, got it together after a half, but that’s well below the standard they’ve set for themselves.

UCF won special teams. Rannell Hall averaged 32.0 yards per kickoff return. Worton averaged 12.0 yards per punt return. Especially the latter kept UCF in great field position the entire first half. Then, there's the bad snap by Mitch MacCluggage. FIU goes years without snapping problems and now has them in two of the first three games.

FIU got a little break from the Conference USA refs in the fourth quarter down 30-14. The game’s wildest play saw UCF’s Troy Davis strip Medlock inside the FIU 5, linebacker Terrance Plummer grab the ball and FIU’s Giancarlo Revila, not giving up on the play, grab Plummer and cause him to lose the ball. FIU wide receiver Glenn Coleman recovered. I think that’s the only time he’s touched the ball this year. Anyway, officials ruled Plummer had the ball long enough to qualify for “possession.” Possession? I wasn’t sure he had it long enough to cop a feel. It was ruled two changes of possession, first down FIU. Had it just been ruled a Medlock fumble eventually recovered by Coleman, it would’ve been fourth and 17 from the FIU 4.

FIU proceeded to drive 96 yards, some of it with Lorenzo Hammonds Jr. at quarterback after Medlock got hurt, to a touchdown. One of those life lessons people like to say sports teach: never stop hustling because you never know what can make a difference.

Speaking of which, here’s three plays that could’ve easily gone the other way/not happened and changed the outcome.

The safety: Mitch MacCluggage snapped the ball over Jack Griffin’s head so that Griffin’s only prudent move would be to make sure the ball got out of the end zone for a safety. Two points that kept FIU on the two-score side of the tracks in the second half. In the fourth quarter, when FIU scored its third touchdown, they were down 30-20 and had to go for two to make it a one-score game. Without the safety, kick the extra point and it’s a seven-point, one-score-does-it-all deficit and UCF is sweating.

(An aside: lousy two-point conversion play on concept. FIU lined up with no backs and ran no motion. With UCF having packed the middle of the box, thus cutting off any possible quarterback draw, only the drunkest in the stadium didn’t know FIU would be throwing and likely something quick. Medlock tried to gun it through tight coverage to Wayne Times – no go).

Hall’s layout 47-yard catch: I don’t know if the atmosphere came through on the TV broadcast or if you had to be there. But when FIU walked down to score on the first possession of the second half, then stopped UCF, a palpable mood change swept the stadium. FIU got a first down, then punted, but you could see the Panthers had it together. UCF was starting on its 17, its worst field position of the day. Brynn Harvey got stuffed on first down for no gain by Isame Faciane and Jordan Hunt. On second and 10, UCF reached back for the big Joe Frazier left hook and got it when Rannell Hall did a Superman take off leap to snag a 47-yard bomb to the FIU 21. Richard Leonard couldn’t have had much better coverage. If Bortles had dropped the ball to Hall in stride, Leonard was in position to make a play on Hall or the ball. Hall landed, held the ball, skidded, stopped, then the ball rolled away. The initial ruling of incomplete was reversed, properly, upon review. Instead of third and 10 from their own 17 -- and the Knights were one for four on third down in the second half – they had first and 10 at the FIU 21. Two plays later, they scored to restore the 23-point lead. That catch and ensuing touchdown looked even bigger when FIU answered just 2:57 later with Mallary’s 28-yard run. A 30-14 lead going into the fourth plays very different from 23-14.

Bortles fumble recovery: Or, 30-14 plays differently than 30-21 going into the fourth. On the last play of the third quarter, Tourek Williams got the only sack of the day on Bortles. The ball came out and bounced back up to Bortles, who managed to recover it while being taken down. If that ball bounces away from him at all or Bortles doesn’t cover it cleanly, well, the closest person to the ball was Faciane. Second closest might’ve been me. Isame could’ve written a song about the play on the ball before the nearest Knight reached him. A reprise of last year’s fumble return touchdown would’ve sent the game into the fourth at 30-21 with FIU conducting the Momentum Superchief.

So, FIU’s 1-2 with Louisville coming to town and the Sun Belt season starting in two weeks with a trip to Lafayette. They need to get their minds right on both sides of the ball.

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