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A few thoughts on Western Kentucky 14, FIU 6

Several years ago in Las Vegas, I made a late night trip from my room at The Venetian down to the blackjack tables. I was there for a few hands of even play, then got one on which I split aces. With what the dealer had showing, this should’ve been two hands of collecting chips. Instead, I got a push on one hand and lost the other. When the cards start going that way, I knew what to do. I immediately got up from the table and called it a night.

When bad things happen to fishermen while working an area, they’ll hang in for a bit before declaring the area has “bad juju.” They leave the area and, hopefully, leave the bad juju behind.

Unfortunately for FIU, the Panthers can’t metaphorically get up from the table when a dependable kicker becomes as reliable as Antonio Cromartie’s birth control. They can’t leave the area when their long snapper starts sending skipping stones back to the punter.

They can’t just shut it down when they get what they want and still don’t get what they want.

For the third consecutive week, FIU’s sitting on a Sunday, shaking their heads at a loss that they feel shouldn’t have been. Compound it now with looking at a future possibly without quarterback Jake Medlock, depending on how badly his right hand and left shoulder were injured on the final drive. Tough kid. Maybe too tough for his own body.

FIU wanted to get up early on Western Kentucky, hit them with a couple of big plays. And, they worked one to perfection, wide receiver Wayne Times going in motion to the right, taking the backward swing pass from Medlock, suckering Western’s secondary up and launching deep to Willis Wright. You knew Times would underthrow Wright – the last thing the passer, especially a stand-in passer, wants to do to a receiver that open is overthrow him – yet Wright still was a stride from the end zone when Western’s Jonathan Dowling stripped him from behind. Good play? Yep. Was Wright holding the ball properly? Tough to tell from my angle. Huge play?

Gargantuan.

That set the tone for the night. FIU would get what it wanted, then fail to take advantage.

Almost as big was Kedrick Rhodes fumble at the Western as he tried to gain a couple of extra yards at the Western 17.

FIU could’ve easily been up 10-3, 10-0, 14-3, 14-0 in this game. Unlike Middle Tennessee and Troy, Western doesn’t have the kind of offense that’s built to come from two touchdowns behind. They got some runs from Antonio Andrews especially when FIU failed to set the edge, and quarterback Kawaun Jakes made two completions over 20 yards. Overall, though, FIU kept Western from finishing drives. Western held the ball for 33:21, but had only 289 yards of offense and one real scoring drive. FIU kept Andrews from grinding out consecutive runs despite his 158 yards rushing on 27 carries. The Panthers kept Jakes under pressure and underperforming. Mr. Passing Efficiency looked like Mr. Just A Guy again. Jakes came in having thrown only four interceptions in seven games. FIU got one and came near a few others. He came in completing 70.1 percent of his passes and completed 66.7 percent. He averaged 12.1 yards per completion and FIU held him to 9.1.

FIU got what it wanted on defense. It even stuffed Western on a fourth and millimeters when the Hilltoppers inexplicably (OK, stupidly) eschewed a quarterback sneak for the first and ran fullback Kadeem Jones on a quick hitting line plunge. The interior defensive line took that extra second to get a great push inside and before Jones could find anywhere else to go, senior safeties Chuck Grace and Johnathan Cyprien were all over him. That stop at the FIU 3 kept the Panthers in the game instead of being down 14-3.

They gave up, really, one scoring drive…but launched that drive and kept it alive with the kind of mistakes you just can’t have. The kickoff got blown when Jack Griffin had to stutter step while the ball started to topple. That caused A) a lousy kickoff and B) an illegal formation penalty on Griffin that got added to the return. Western started just 53 yards from paydirt.

They had the drive stalled – or at least Western looking at a tough fourth down – when Jakes overthrew Rico Brown on third and 6. Problem was, just before the snap, senior defensive end Tourek Williams did the offside cha-cha. And this wasn’t one of those, free-play-high-risk throws. Jakes blew the throw on his own. Instead of going for it on fourth and 6, Western converted the third and 1 with a play action 20-yard lob to tight end Jack Doyle.

And Western would’ve gone for it, just as they ran some half-baked draw play on fourth and 4 from the FIU 28 in the third quarter. Maybe FIU could’ve held Western to no points. Maybe the drive continues, but with No matter what Western coach Willie Taggart Tweets, he clearly has no confidence in kickers who haven’t been allowed to make a field goal attempt beyond 36 yards and longest made field goal is 27 yards. Somebody should tell Willie there’s a pretty good women’s soccer team at Western. Go find himself a kicker.

Not that FIU’s feeling thinks of Griffin as Prudential these days. He made two Saturday, from 29 and 39, but missed wide left from 40. Valuable points in a defensive struggle. At least he didn’t blow an extra point for the third consecutive week. (OK, he didn’t get a chance…)

But long snapper Mitch McCluggage did blow a punt snap for the second straight week, leading to an opposing touchdown. Three bad McCluggage punt snaps, the first three of his career, have led to 16 opposing points this year. And that was a huge score, the one that put Western up 14-6. At the end, instead of one final, futile play for the end zone, FIU could’ve lined up Griffin from the right hash mark for a 38-yard, game-winner. No lock, but even as erratic as he’s been, Griffin’s odds of hitting from 38 beat the odds of E.J. Hilliard coming in cold and hitting a 21-yard pass against the Sun Belt’s best defense.

Speaking of that defense, which got its ninth sack on that final play…Medlock did what got Wesley Carroll benched last year: held onto the ball too long too often. Western sat on some of the quick stuff FIU wanted to throw and when that wasn’t open or Medlock believed it wasn’t open, here came the deluge.

“He’s trying, he’s a young quarterback, but you can’t hang onto the ball, not against a defense like that,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “If it’s not there, you’ve got to tuck and run. You can’t hang back there. That protection is not designed to sit back there.”

The FIU bench drew two flags. One was on Cristobal and, whether he earned this one or not, I wasn’t surprised – mounting frustration with the Sun Belt officials this season, years of him being quickly hot and off the bench to protest calls, I’ve been waiting for that flag to fall. Call it a lifetime achievement flag. The other time, an official claimed he ran into an FIU coach.

It’s that kind of year. With three hands left to play before FIU can leave the table.

 

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