From my point of view from the press box, which on the east end of FIU Stadium’s south side, between the 5-yard line and the goal line, Willis Wright got into the end zone. Wright didn’t make it as all those Middle Tennessee defenders slammed onto him, but as he writhed in their grasp, I kept watching the ball and thought I saw the ball break the plane.
Also, from my point of view, it shouldn’t have come down to that.
Whether through ineptness or not being inclined to give a break to a departing school, Sun Belt officials shouldn’t be relied upon to give FIU a break. Then again, they did turn a blind eye to what several of us saw as a block in the back on Wright’s 49-yard catch-and-run earlier in the game. And I’m not the only Florida resident in the press box who thought Glenn Coleman came down with one foot out of bounds before getting the other foot down inbounds on the 32-yard sideline catch preceding Wright’s 30-yard touchdown that put FIU up 30-27.
Quick digression: notice how FIU’s big play offense, limited to cameos this season, materialized when Wright and Coleman materialized Saturday? They combined for eight catches, 224 yards and two touchdowns. Coming into the game, Coleman had one catch for 8 yards. Wright had six for 108. Each has shown inconsistency in practice and games. Both committed “arrrgh”-inducing drops again Saturday – Wright had a third down scramble throw from Jake Medlock go through his hands on the drive to his touchdown -- but both made up for the goofs. Especially should senior wideout Jacob Younger be hurt badly enough to be limited next week at Troy, it’ll be interesting to see how much playing time Saturday earned Wright and Coleman. Put either with Wayne Times, who bailed Wright out on the third down drop by getting open on fourth down, and freshman De’Andre Jasper and you’ve got a possession guy (Times) with a speed guy (Jasper) and a big, physical guy who can be either (Wright/Coleman).
Jasper’s 26-yard end around touchdown, by the way, was such an excellent call, half the offense could’ve started playing tunk and Jasper still would’ve scored. Once he got the ball going left, only one Middle defender remained with any kind of angle and that defender faced a snowplow of Panthers. I know I call out the coaches on questionable play calls, but that was a great one, well executed.
FIU lost this game in the same way it’s lost too many games this season, defense and special teams. FIU lost control of this game in the same places – the final minutes of the first half and the early minutes of the second half.
The offense couldn’t have been more dominant in the first half. The difference with Medlock in at quarterback, even though he wasn’t a serious running effect on the option, is the difference between lube and no lube – everything just moved so much more smoothly. It’s no surprise. E.J. Hilliard’s young, Medlock’s been practicing at this level for three years.
Actually, the offense could’ve been more dominant – the opening drive fumble aborted what should’ve been a 3-0 or 7-0 lead. That fell on a bobble by Kedrick Rhodes, something much less likely to happen to him if he’d been a healthy, regular participant this season.
Still, FIU took a 20-3 lead with 1:39 left in the half after butt-kicking 15-play, 72-yard drive to a Darian Mallary touchdown. That missed extra point after the first touchdown? Hey, what did it matter? Middle Tennessee had only 135 yards of offense for the half on 30 plays, 52 yards on 12 plays in the second quarter. FIU even sacked Logan Kilgore twice, two more times than he’d been sacked in Middle’s first five games.
This is when FIU allowed Louisville to walk down the field to a game-tying touchdown. This is when a touchdown bomb-lost fumble-field goal-blocked field goal touchdown turned 20-14, Duke with 3:30 left in the half to 37-14 Duke at halftime. This is when an interception on a why-are-you-throwing-with-the-lead-and-a-freshman-QB-from-deep-in-your-end-with-less-than-90-seconds-to-halftime play turned into an Arkansas State touchdown and 14-10 halftime lead.
And, Saturday, this is when they blew it. A 33-yard pass down the middle to running back Benny Cunningham followed by a 20-yard pass to Anthony Amos for a touchdown on two of their earliest downfield throws of the night. Granted, FIU’s surprising pass rush – somebody put the mad juice in Tourek Williams, who was destroying Middle’s tackles – took the downfield plays away much of the first half. But how do you let the Cunningham play happen in the secondary? And Sam Miller didn’t have bad coverage on Amos. But Miller was, in the words of Lt. Bogomil’s post-climax lie from Beverly Hills Cop, present only as an observer.
That would be a repeated theme for Miller and Richard Leonard Saturday. So many times, FIU defensive backs were in position to swipe at the ball, grab an arm, yank a foot, poke an eye, yell “Drop It!” do something to prevent a catch and huge gain, yet didn’t. Also, once again, you see why FIU’s recruiting defensive backs over 6-feet. Yeah, Jeremiah McKinnon did the same in a couple of spots, especially that 28-yarder to Christian Collis before Middle’s last touchdown, and he’s a big, long cornerback. He’s also a true freshman, in his fourth or fifth game getting regular defensive snaps.
Anyway, a 20-10 halftime score feels much different than 20-3, no matter what any of the Panthers say. Look what’s happened after the aforementioned late first half scores against FIU. Duke took the second half kickoff and, essentially, ended the game at 44-14. Just like Louisville took Miller’s fumbled punt after FIU got a three-and-out to start the half and took a 21-14 lead. Just like Arkansas State took a punt and drove to a touchdown and 21-10 third quarter lead.
Saturday, Middle took the second half kickoff and drove to a touchdown: 20-17.
After Wright’s touchdown, put FIU ahead 30-27, the Panthers got tagged with an excessive celebration penalty that followed the letter of the law. I’ve found that penalty to be ridiculous at any level of football, especially levels below the NFL. You want to tell young people, emotional by nature, to be cool after a huge play in any game in which they’ve invested so much time, pain and feeling? Silly. This is supposed to be what separates high school and college football from the NFL. Also, have a sense of the game. A wild contest like that with a touchdown like that, to me, officials should have a little discretion. You can keep them from dogpiling in the end zone without acting like Daddy No Fun and Mommy Serious.
That said, FIU committed the penalty and had to serve it on the kickoff. The kickoff would be from the 20 into the wind. No chance for a touchback, FIU’s best defense After the game, I asked Mario Cristobal if he considered squibbing the kickoff. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the squib unless a) you’re a bad kickoff coverage team or b) they’re a very good kickoff return team. Middle’s the latter, one of the nation’s best. My figuring during the game was they hadn’t had a big one yet, you know it’s probably going to happen, why tempt fate? Their best shot at getting into field goal range would be a big return.
Cristobal had a good answer.
“They moved their guys up so much,” Cristobal said. “We looked at it from the side to see if we could (squib) to see if we could pooch it. Either one of those gives them position at the 50, just about. We just figured we’d put our best guys in there, starters at respective positions and do our best to put them on their side of the field. Make them at least drive 30 yards before they had a shot at a field goal. They had the wind at their backs so I’m sure anything under 50 would’ve been something they attempted. Missing an extra point hurts you because at the end of the game, they’re playing for a tie instead of having to score a touchdown to win the game.”
Also note this game that FIU didn’t fritter away timeouts in either half. Had they done what they usually do, the last play to Wright wouldn’t have even been possible because they would’ve gotten to the last drive with no timeouts.
FIU coaches must be popping Maalox like Tic Tacs over punt returns. They put Wayne Times, their most sure-handed punt returner back there, and he fumbled Saturday. FIU recovered, but still, it kind of says how this season’s going for the Panthers.