Hopefully, a better version of the pregame blog. I went to bed not entirely happy with it, so we're up and fixing it from a Denny's booth.
As I break down this matchup, I like it better for FIU than I did last year's matchup with UCF. Of course, FIU won last year by eventually taking over both lines of scrimmage, especially imposing its will on UCF's offense. Shows how much I know. With that caveat, let's proceed...
One of you who ran into me at the Raleigh-Durham Airport mentioned FIU's annoying ability to play to the perceived quality of opponent and pointed to the Louisiana-Lafayette and Duke games last year. I still disagree about Lafayette, but when someone closer to the program mentioned they saw this as an FIU tendency -- and they've seen more FIU football than anyone -- I put it back in the "strong maybe" catetory.
It's not that they're loafing. But they're making mistakes, particularly on defense, you expect to see in 2010 or early last year. It reminds me of my daughter's reading comprehension and retention when she reads by herself in her room while rolling on her bed, fussing with Jake (one of our cats), wondering if her American Girl doll also has her schoolwork. There's a difference between that and how she reads after Dad's snapped, "Stop (censored) with Jake! Leave American Girl alone! She'll be fine until you finish." Then, she's fine. That makes me think they're playing without enough mental focus. Most people, high level athletes included, have to make an effort at getting into that proper state of mind. It's not always tunnel-vision, scowling DMV-worker face. Former Atlanta Falcons defensive end Tim Green, throughout his four years at Syracuse and eight-year NFL career, used to read.
It's mental preparation. When players forget to make sure their focus is there, they're going forth unprepared for success in (quasi)-professional sports. I think FIU plays with that focus against because this game has too many connections for players for them not to come out sharp as a thumb tack. Also, on the defensive side of the ball, they've been embarrassed two weeks in a row. No matter how bad I've seen FIU play, I've never felt the football team played without pride. So -- hey, could be wrong, remember last year -- I think Saturday's FIU team will be closer to the one everyone who knew anything about the team thought they'd see the first two weeks.
That doesn't mean I think the Panthers are going to win, however.
UCF's got George O'Leary, a coach with a defensive background, running the show there. Now, the first time he has the ball in the home opener, does he ride the emotional wave and take advantage of what's been the hole in FIU's defensive jeans and run some motion preceding 10 to 20-yard patterns? I mean, FIU's responded to passing off motion like Cro-Magnon man did upon seeing fire. Or, does Mr. O'Leary go Mrs. O'Leary (no cow) revert to conservatism and hope to (grunt and eat meat as you say this) establish the run and rely on his defense to smother FIU?
If I'm O'Leary, I tell my offensive coordinator "Let's get some points and make those guys feel like they have to get away from the run before they really do." That means 6-4 quarterback Blake Bortles throwing the ball over an FIU rush that hasn't been getting there into a secondary that, for the most part, hasn't been there period. I wonder if defensive end Tourek Williams has a knee or calf injury. Williams hasn't looked as if he's moving normally. Anyway, he's not the only source of a pass rush. There's no push up the middle, which quarterbacks back away from like it's Alien coming out of a stomach. This is where Isame Faciane, especially, needs to be more evident. The downfield fussing at each other about responsbility and coverage should be long past for FIU. That it isn't -- Johnathan Cyprien says they made better communication an emphasis this week in practice -- says that's where UCF, with a cadre of receivers that actually looks similar to FIU's, should try to strike first.
Alas, coaches, especially in the macho sports of football and hockey, get the squeaky sphincter quickly. Do you want to chance redshirt sophomore Bortles throwing early or rely on Storm Johnson and Brynn Harvey to set a physical tone (Latavius Murray is out with a shoulder injury)? I'd take the former, but I wouldn't be surprised if O'Leary took the latter, worried that an experienced FIU defense might find itself after two weeks in Wackyland and an overexcited Bortles would try to do too much. FIU's run defense has shown cracks. Bet that Johnson makes it through one of those cracks for a big one. But I don't see the Knights paying the rent on the run. Eventually, this game could come down to which redshirt sophomore quarterback gets coaxed into the last, biggest mistake. If O'Leary's thinking the same thing, and coaches rank among the biggest Anxiety Andys, he'll try to keep the game out of his quarterback's hands.
On the other side, FIU will open with the run because a) the Panthers have done it pretty well the first two games and b) UCF didn't just look pushed around by Ohio State's read option attack, it looked confused. UCF's defense moves well and I don't see FIU moving them like the Buckeye Beef Boys. Again, if I were FIU, I'd throw a screen or short cross early to a tight end or a back, something to occupy the linebackers and give them something to think about. That extra time you create in their head translates to time on the field. A half-second, a quarter-second can be 2 to 20 yards of difference. FIU hasn't thrown much off the option yet this year, which has surprised me. It was open during the time of the game FIU ran The Rockettes offense (one, two, three...kick!) and Medlock was a little hyperactive. UCF got gashed by Ohio State on read option plays. They've had a week to buckle up. If they haven't, look for Medlock to have a good day and Kedrick Rhodes to have an above average day. If they have, well, now we get to the element that could win or lose the game for FIU.
While Akron needed to throw just to get some offensive work in after UCF took a 35-0 halftime deficit, Ohio State threw just enough to keep UCF off balance and didn't complete a pass over 15 yards. If FIU establishes the run early, on the second or third drive, the Panthers should launch one deep among the first plays of the drive. Just to remind UCF it's out there.
FIU's receivers need to help a Medlock out more outside of a two-minute situation. On those drives, his decisiveness takes over. Otherwise, he's more hesitant to make throws into tight spaces and he's holding onto the ball too long. I'm not sure he throws the pass to Jacob Younger along the right sideline last week that led to the pre-halftime touchdown if the play happens with, say, six minutes left in the quarter. FIU's most talented receivers, Willis Wright and Glenn Coleman, have a combined one catch this season. That's not going to get it done over the long term. The Panthers definitely could use more from either one tonight. Whether it's grasping the offense (a problem for Wright in the past), blocking ability, getting outworked in practice or what, an FIU offense with either or both working well truly scorches earth.
As it is, I don't have beef with the offense so far. They haven't been perfect, but any coach would take what they produced during the competitive phase against Duke and the whole Akron game. But this game feels like it could have two or three big offensive plays. I see Storm Johnson getting one for UCF. The others most likely will come from receivers. Whichever team gets them, wins.
Or, those massive, nuclear plays could come on special teams. On punt returns, J.J. Worten's averaging 20.0 yards per return for UCF. Wouldn't it be funny if this game had back-to-back touchdown returns? Whenever that happens, everybody loves it, dances like the Carol City band, high fives, low fives, laughs while coaches explode with every orifice flowing with smoke and slime. Special teams' margin for error in this game would fit between my thumbnail and forefinger. More likely to make a big play? FIU. More likely to fumble it away? FIU. That's a problem anytime. It'll be a bigger one this game, where I see the offenses petering out short of the goal line.
FIU's got the better kicker and they might need Jack Griffin to keep it close. If blow early scoring chances as they did against Duke and Akron, this could be over early.
I'll be on Twitter during the game as usual, http://twitter.com/DavidJNeal.
Out in Vegas, the bettors like UCF big. Then again, they liked FIU against Duke and split on Akron and FIU. So, I'm sticking with my preseason section call: UCF 20, FIU 13.
But that's just one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.
A good sign for my day, at least. As I walked into Denny's, this was playing, a song on my Saturday morning playlist because I used to use half my 50-cent allowance to play it and Eddie Kendricks' "Keep On Truckin'" on the bowling alley jukebox.
Not a good night for the soccers. The men lost to Furman 2-1 and, out in Tucson, Arizona beat FIU 2-0 Friday night in the (inhale) Loews Ventana Canyon Cats Classic (phew).
The 3-3-1 women play Arizona State Sunday.