The advance story on today’s game discusses Glenn Coleman and Willis Wright. I wrote most of the story Monday, intending it to run in Tuesday’s Herald. However we’ve scaled back coverage at 1-7, so I holstered it to use it as the advance. Coincidentally, i think they’ll be the keys if FIU wants to score enough to keep up with Western Kentucky.
Last year, Western ran the old USC-O.J. Simpson offense with running back Bobby Rainey. Run him left, right, up the middle – “The ball isn’t very heavy and he doesn’t belong to any union,” then-USC coach John McKay once said of Simpson’s heavy workload – throw to him and make the quarterback do as little as possible.
This year, quarterback Kawaun Jakes ranks ninth nationally in passing efficiency. Jakes is still is no Bernie Kosar – more like Frank Costa – yet works better off Western’s running game than last year, now with Antonio Andrews in the Bobby Rainey role. Western likes the double tight end look and the best of them is Jack Doyle (Cathedral in the house!), the Hilltopppers leading receiver with 33 catches, but only 9.8 yards per catch. Also, fullback Kadeem Jones plays the ever-helpful Thing role (not to be confused with The Thing except by size) by doing whatever’s necessary – the occasional needed run (5.9 per carry) or catch (three touchdowns in 11 catches), lead blocker, pass protector.
Andrews is the second-leading receiver. Jakes’ longest completion this year is 40 yards. They’ve allowed only 15 sacks. Essentially, don’t expect a lot of deep drop, long-developing plays. That’s not Jakes’ strength and if you’re running the ball well, mixing in short throws, you’re not going to be in situations where you need to do that, especially on third down. Western coach Willie Taggart, a man deservedly very confident in his own team, can make the FIU pass rush sound like a collegiate Fearsome Foursome while figuring they won’t have many opportunities to do what he says they can do.
“They’re athletic, physical. I would say by far overall, the most athletic defense we’ve faced this year,” Taggart said at his Thursday media session. “Their defensive line is really good. Its pass rush wiil the best pass rushing D-line we’ve faced this year, that’s including Alabama. Alabama has a great defense overall and does a lot of good things, but these guys do a really good job of pass rushing, getting up the field.”
Here’s what’s most impressive about Western’s offense: they’re 48 of 91, 52.7 percent, on third down. Getting them off the field is harder than getting college graduates out of the house these days.
So, FIU’s run defense, which got trampled by Middle Tennessee’s Benny Cunningham, and linebacker/defensive end pass coverage will be tested more than any other tonight. In some ways, that’s better for FIU than its shredded secondary. If Western starts to make plays downfield, send in the clowns.
On the other side, the Hillpeople give up only 3.5 yards per carry and that’s not because of sacks – they have only 20. That’s just good run defense like they’ve played the last two seasons. They’ve got a ferocious, scary linebacker in Andrew Jackson and an excellent defensive end in Quanterus Smith, who leads the team in sacks.
Here’s why I see Wright and Coleman as even more important than they’ve been the last two weeks. I looked over the scoring drives Western’s allowed in its last six games (Austin Peay? Austin Please, I’m not counting that). There’s not much grind-it-out on the H-tops. They’ll play Patton vs. Rommel all day and be happier than a pig in Paducah. You have to, at some point, make a big strike. Not one or a few 10-15 yard plays. You have to rip off a pass over 30 yards, two 20-29-yard throws or a 20-yard run. A real thicker-than-a-Snicker chunk.
Western likes to play man coverage downfield. Troy went over the top on the Hills and had them on the ropes early. Louisiana-Monroe moved the ball well on them in a wild comeback last week. FIU should have its chances. If FIU executes early and gets up big as it did the last two games, Western’s not as equipped to come back from 16 or 17 points down. Also, I see FIU running the ball on Western a little better than it did last year. Not overwhelming Western, but maybe having just enough success to keep Western off balance.
In special teams, Andrews averages 30.4 yards per kickoff return and 14.3 yards per punt return. Opponents average 12.7 yards per punt return on the Hi-tops, but that might be a moot point – Western doesn’t punt often and FIU’s to the point of being just happy to get through the play without a muff or fumble.
Another tough call. Western 28, FIU 27.
But that’s just one black man’s opinion. I could be wrong.
When Middle Tennessee tied Western Kentucky Friday night, it left Middle, North Texas and FIU all at 8-1-1 in the Sun Belt and with a share of the regular season title.
That's the title of limited meaning. For the one that gets you into the NCAA tournament, the Sun Belt tournament title, a tie with North Texas and a loss to Middle leaves FIU seeded third. The Panthers will play Troy (9-9-2, 4-5-1 in conference) on Wednesday. FIU won at Troy, 2-1, on Sept. 23.