Tonight, Sonia Perez Arau swam the 400 Individual Medley final in 4:12.95, a fat 6.37 seconds faster than second place Dani Spradlin from Missouri, for FIU's second win in an individual event. Johanna Gustafsdottir won the 200 IM Thursday.
Junior Sabrina Beaupre scored 263.85 to finish third behind Missouri's Loren Figueroa and Sharon Finn in the 1-meter diving competition.
Other FIU results:
*The 200 medley relay A team -- Gustafsdottir, Klara Andersson, Marina Ribi, Valeriia Popova -- finished ninth in 1:44.72.
*Dani Albright was 14th in the 200 freestyle in 1:51.67.
*Andersson was 14th in the 100 breaststroke in 1:04.78
*Gustafsdottir was seventh in the 100 backstroke in 55.36.
*The 800 free relay -- Gustafsdottir, Perez Arau, Ribi, Albright -- came in third with a 7:21.54.
This hasn't been a week for rote predictability for basketball games in South Florida. Not in Coral Gables, on the edge of Biscayne Bay or Thursday night at The Branch.
The FIU women opened with what looked like an undercard tuneup: 0-5 Arkansas State. And it's not as if the bad Red Wolves got that record playing Tennessee, unless you want to count Tennessee-Martin, which whipped Ark State by 10. FIU had just beaten Iowa and given LSU trouble so what could be expected here?
Certainly not an offense as stagnant as the pep band's playlist as part of an overall performance that could be described as "sleepy." Any second, I expected Al Czervik to arrive and liven things up...
After Thursday's 60-57 loss, FIU coach Cindy Russo said the team wouldn't practice Friday just do film with Saturday's South Alabama game looming. She said between finals week stress and study and the third game in seven nights, the team was tired. Don't get the idea that Russo went into Cuddly Mother Hen mode after the game, though. More like Angry Mama Bear.
Russo left the floor at halftime shaking her head, looking toward the floor about a yard in front of her. The similarity to parents murmuring to themselves about a screwup kid can't be overlooked. She wasn't in much better mood after the game.
"We didn't need to lose this game tonight, even playing as poorly as we did -- and we did play poorly," Russo said. "We cannot win games unless we listen and execute. And we did not execute. We just kind of individually did what we wanted to do and we lost. Timeouts, we kept telling them the same thing. Do you think we could've posted up on this team?" I nodded. "Did you see us post up much?" I shook my head as if to say "not often." "OK, thanks. Well, that was our game plan believe it or not.""
Finda Mansare, sitting next to Russo as she went off postgame, went six of 11 from the field, grabbed six rebounds, but didn't get to the line. Diamond Ashmore took only one free throw. Marita Davydova shot two. The three-point shooting percentage for Jerica Coley equalled the number of free throws she took: zero point zero.
In contrast, the men's team came out with more giddyup than I saw in any performance last season. That's helped by the high-pressure style of defense that doesn't allow for a stately pace of play and uses the whole bench -- 11 players got on the court Thursday, 10 scored, in a relentless beatdown that didn't let up over the last 30 minutes. FIU led 33-26 at half, 37-30 early in the second and maintained a double digit lead over the last 15 minutes to the 80-61 finish.
Interesting that the trouncing occurred without the usual scoring help from season leading scorer Malik Smith, although Smith's points were timely. Tymell Murphy threw in a game-high 22 points Tuesday.
Dominique Ferguson was at The Branch. I wondered if last year's No. 3 watched this year's No. 3, freshman Jerome Frink, with enough of an analytical eye to realize how to not be a black hole of offense in the post. Frink also didn't get overwhelmed by a much more physically mature Kendrick Washington, 6-7, 275 pounds. Both came away with seven rebounds and Frink defelected a number of passes that turned into FIU steals.
"He really set the tone in the second half," coach Richard Pitino said. "The admustment they made was they wanted to pound it inside on us. They're very physical, tough kids. Frink came in there, really fought hard. he fronted the post, he was aggressive. To see him do that coming off the bench really gave us a big boost. That kid competes every single day."
SWIMMING & DIVING
A good crowd by FIU standards filled the lower part of The Branch as other athletes and some students took a break from studying. I'd idly said to someone, "The swim team's out of town, who'll be there?"
The most loyal fan grounp among the students -- who else was in the rain at the women's soccer opener and at Saturday's football season closer? -- spat out the kind of shot you'd expect from a passionate Philly fan when senior butterflier Marina Ribi Tweeted about the football team earlier this week, "Is winning two games the whole season a reason to party every night of the week now? Get your a---- on the field and PRACTICE #p------."
Ribi ripped off the third best 100 fly time in school history, 55.96, at the Mizzou Invitational Thursday and was fifth in the 200 Individual Medley, but it was sophomore Johanna Gustafsdottir who truly starred. Gustafsdottir won the 200 IM with a time of 1:59.44. Gustafsdottir, Klara Andersson, Valeria Popova and Kelly Grace threw down a 1:34.83 to crash the school record for the 200 freestyle relay while finishing eighth.
Junior Sonia Perez, second in the 500 freestyle, destroyed her own school record in 4:50.32. Junior Sabrina Beaupre came in third in the 3-meter diving event, but put up a 293.50 score, her season high.
The meet continues throughout today with finals tonight.
Multiple reports are saying what I projected last night by crossing some streams -- Conference USA will invite FAU and Middle Tennessee State to join the conference in 2014.
This not only means the Shula Bowl revives after a year in suspended animation, but FIU breathes a sigh of relief across the board. Spreading a conference all over the map creates travel time and money nightmares for the schools on the edges. It does the same for all the other schools during basketball and volleyball seasons when a school being 600 miles from the nearest conference mate defeats the ease of using the "travel partner" arrangement in scheduling.
I don't understand any pouting over playing FAU in football. FIU doesn't have much tradition. What rivals do the Panthers have that stir their fan base? Or the players? They're not staying in the Sun Belt, so the Western Kentucky dislike will fade. Central Florida? For reasons that rank as pettiness, FIU's not playing the University of Miami any time soon. Might as well keep developing something with the Division I school in the metropolitan area that'll play you. What's the point of one more home game against an opponent most of the fan base doesn't care about (remember that Akron home opener attendance?) or one more road game you can't reach by an easy drive?
FIU athletic director Pete Garcia said Wednesday morning that he and president Mark Rosenberg are lobbying Conference USA to invite FAU to join in 2014.
FIU's motivation is obvious. Why it wouldn't be a surprise if Conference USA warmed to the idea was detailed in my last post. And the Shula Bowl would resume after a one-year break.
C-USA's other replacement school? Couple of sources say it might be Middle (again, see my last post for why this wouldn't be surprising). This all might be happening within the next two days.
For those thinking Big East for FIU...slow down. Realize where you are. Look around at FIU's facilities and fan support for football and the basketballs (yes, that should improve over the next 10 years across the board, at least for football) and be happy they're moving up one step on the conference ladder, this year's Sun Belt vs. C-USA football records notwithstanding.
Tuesday, Conference USA commissioner Britt Barnowsky issued a statement on Tulane and East Carolina leaving for the Big East:
“We thank East Carolina and charter member Tulane for all their contributions to the league and wish them well. These are unprecedented times in higher education. Notwithstanding the changes, we are excited about our future and we remain committed to our strategic plan - a major market, two-division conference that is student-athlete friendly.
“To be clear, we have several options but no new member agreements have been made at this time. We appreciate the support of our members and will immediately begin a presidentially led process to evaluate our future options.”
Totalling the losses from its current structure for Conference USA (with TV market): Central Florida (Orlando market), Memphis (Memphis, duh) Houston (the big college dog in Houston, leaving C-USA with private, academically superior Rice), SMU (Dallas), Tulane (New Orleans) and East Carolina (Greenville-New Bern-Washington).
Total gains: FIU (Miami-Fort Lauderdale), North Carolina-Charlotte (guess), North Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth), Texas-San Antonio (obvious), Louisiana Tech (Shreveport), Old Dominion (Norfolk).
Losing Tulane hurts C-USA as much in recruiting as television. No state produces more talent per capita than Louisiana so nobody gripes about being in a conference with a presence in or around Louisiana's largest city. All six FIU players from Louisiana are from the New Orleans area. Louisiana Tech's at the other end of the state, in Ruston. Recently, Tulane's been a dream conference pal for football -- a bad team in a talent thick area. The school recently threw some big money at its athletic facilities, so a turnaround might be in order.
Nobody knows East Carolina, but ECU draws better than Central Florida and FIU put together in football (and they're going in as football only). Those sighing over the death of Big East football, an accidental child a decade after the conference's birth as a made-for-TV basketball group, can turn up their noses at Tulane and East Carolina. C-USA will look back longingly while looking forward.
So, C-USA, where to next? If you want to talk "student-athlete friendly" you want a school near one of your current schools to cut down on days missed by weekday travel and save on total travel costs. FAU, in the nation's No. 38 TV market, would get a look. And there can't be an Owlman or Owlwoman happy that now their nearest Sun Belt rival is Georgia State, in Atlanta.
They're losing Memphis. Four hours away in Tennessee is Middle Tennessee State, officially in Murfreesboro. Still, that's closer to Nashville than, say, downtown Miami is to the DDT Center or whatever the Panthers arena is named these days. Middle's got strong programs in football and the basketballs. And it would give Alabama-Birmingham a closer playmate.
So, don't be surprised if the next poaching of the Sun Belt involves those FAU and Middle.
Junior guard Jerica Coley put up 31 points on Iowa Friday, finishing with a floor-length drive to a buzzer beater, and 25 points in a 76-69 loss to LSU Sunday. Over the two games, Coley garnered 15 rebounds, six steals, six assists and a blocked shot.
So, Coley got the fifth Sun Belt Player of the Week award of her FIU career.
I'll have more on this tonight. For now, I'll just say that Tulane and East Carolina following Central Florida, Houston, SMU and Memphis to the Big East from FIU's future home, Conference USA, reminds me of the Chris Rock line "Every town has the same two malls: the one the white people go to and the one the white people used to go to."
The women ballers fell to LSU Sunday, 76-69, in the championship game of the FIU Thanksgiving Classic, but the weekend transitioned the seasons from football/volleyball to basketball. The former seasons ended. The latter seasons get some home action this week with doubleheaders at The Branch against Arkansas State and South Alabama.
After the women hoopsters upset Iowa Friday night on Jerica Coley's leaner at the horn, the men took out Coastal Carolina 87-77 for the first career college win for Richard Pitino. Saturday, the volleyball team lost its epilogue match, against Central Florida hours before the football team suffered its final heartbreak to Louisiana-Monroe, putting to bed two disappointing seasons.
As soon as T.Y. Hilton crossed the goal line on his 75-yard punt return, I got a text message from a longtime friend and Colts fan crowing that Hilton got the first of many return touchdowns. Hilton later became the first Colt to have a receiving and return touchdown in the same game, no small thing for a franchise that had Hall of Fame all-purpose guy Lenny Moore and Lydell Mitchell.
And, with the Dolphins, tight end Michael Egnew's game jersey remains pristine.
When E.J. Hilliard painted a rainbow that Willis Wright ran under – past a startlingly stationary ULM secondary that looked bewildered to be back on the field – for a 58-yard game-tying touchdown with 14 seconds left after a Victory Formation Fumble, I thought of the great call from Raiders announcer Bill King on the 1978 Holy Roller that beat San Diego.
In the end, however, it proved to be more like another Chargers game, the 1981 AFC Divisional Playoff I in the Orange Bowl that saw the Dolphins come from 24-0 down to lead 38-31, then have a potential game-winning field goal blocked before losing in overtime. The Herald headline called it “The Miracle That Died.”
Call Saturday Another Miracle That Died
Of course, it involved a bad snap.
Not ULM’s kneel down fumble that suddenly put beeps back on FIU’s flatlined monitor with 28 seconds left in the game. But FIU’s bad snap in overtime as the Panthers sat second and 3 at the ULM 7. That grounder, a rerun of the snap on FIU’s first play from scrimmage of the game, began pushing FIU backwards to the blocked field goal.
Bad snap…blocked field goal…hey, isn’t this where we all came in back in September at Duke?
It’s been that kind of season. As I said in an earlier post, if this were Vegas, FIU should’ve left the casino a long time ago, as it became apparent that the cards just wouldn’t fall their way even when they did what they were supposed to do. But, to FIU’s credit, as pointed out by Caylin Hauptmann afterwards, a team loaded with seniors who’ll never play football again (and a couple who will) didn’t quit.
Saturday’s game set up as a severely depressing butt kicking. Medlock was a longshot to play. Browning, on the other hand, was shredding secondaries and lesser quarterbacks had done that to FIU. I thought I’d be covering another senior goodbye similar to the one I did in 1988 at Indiana when arguably the best class in Indiana’s weak football history got routed wire-to-wire by Michigan State in a stadium wet and nearly empty by the end. Sad.
After ULM pop-pop-popped 51 yards to a 7-0 lead on its first drive, FIU’s defense stepped up. Literally, as they played ULM’s receivers with little cushion and made sure tackles to keep little ones from turning into big ones. I don’t think FIU tackled any better this season than they did Saturday. Once the coverage disrupted the rhythm, the pass rush, which didn’t have to worry about draws or running back screens because ULM operated out of a no-back set most of the night, started to overwhelm Kolton Browning.
But FIU’s best defensive effort of the season, something expected back when the course of the season could be set, got wasted. E.J. Hilliard was off early. On the rare occasions Hilliard ran, he slid or dived as soon as he could, clearly not wanting to expose his slight frame to possible breakage. I’m sure the FIU coaches encouraged this. Beyond Hilliard, the options were Lorenzo Hammonds, Jr., who would’ve been a fine wishbone or veer quarterback if this were the 1970s or 1980s, and freshman Favian Upshaw.
Once it became clear that Hilliard probably possessed more enthusiasm for uncooked medieval cuisine than running the ball, ULM dogpiled on the give to the running back. Of course, without a Panzer division penetration by ULM’s front seven, that wouldn’t have mattered. Before that, FIU ran the ball into position for their first touchdown, Hilliard’s nice step up throw to DeAndre Jasper for a Soul Bowl score. As Hilliard settled in later, I think FIU was a couple of possessions late in letting him loose in the downfield passing game.
Good…but not good enough. Hilliard’s two fumbles cost FIU a field goal or touchdown and got returned for a ULM touchdown. His 45-yard completion to T.J. Lowder should’ve been a touchdown (although, to be fair, his overthrow of Lowder a few plays earlier was the result of Lowder dropping out of passing gear midway through the pattern).
It’s easy to look back and say with a healthy Medlock, FIU could’ve beaten Arkansas State, ULM and Louisville. Or that execution of usual givens such as bad snaps and extra points would’ve beaten Troy, Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky.
Or, maybe those games would’ve just been more miracles that died. Because, sometimes, that’s life.
Now, the question goes to how many staff changes there will be – don’t expect defensive coordinator Todd Orlando back for starters – and how FIU will shore up parts stripped by the 31 seniors leaving: offensive line (junior college recruits, anyone?); dependable kicker, punter and long snapper (appreciate those now, don’t you?); the linebackers behind seniors Winston Fraser and Jordan Hunt (they love this year’s freshmen); and the secondary (could see freshman starting).
This is simple: if FIU quarterback Jake Medlock plays, he gets into a shoot out with ULM's Kolton Browning, who has about 8,000 yards of total offense against FIU over the previous two games. OK, maybe I exaggerated by a zero and change and Browning's mobility could still be limited by that ankle. But in that case, it's hampered passer against hampered passer. Could go either way, but I'd say 40-30, Monroe.
If Medlock doesn't play: Monroe will try to throw some exotica against freshman E.J. Hilliard and come out with a couple of interceptions, one of which gets run back for a touchdown. The Panthers defense gets run ragged, leading to a couple of late garbage time scores that makde 54-24 look even worse than it is.
That's one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.
The next quarterback to threaten Medlock's job might not be Hilliard, but Collins Hill (Ga.) senior Brett Sheehan. Sheehan's season ended with a 66-41 playoff loss last Saturday that saw him go 27 of 49 for 349 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions.
One local guy who has known and covered Dade high schools and recruiting since he was knee high to a grasshopper said while he was never a big Hilliard fan, Carol City defensive back Simeon Thomas would be a steal for FIU if he follows through on his verbal commitment.
How did an FIU team that got destroyed by Florida Gulf Coast and beaten by Western Kentucky just walk down Iowa, 66-65, which has 11 postseason tournament appearances in 12 seasons under coach Lisa Bluder and five straight NCAA berths? Bluder seemed to be thinking the same thing as she tossed her phone on the press row table -- the resulting "thud" sounded disheartened -- to watch Friday night's second game of the FIU Thanksgiving Classic. She looked down at the west basket where Jerica Coley had scored the game-winner as a red light framed the backboard. Occasionally, she put her face in her hands.
Meanwhile, FIU coach Cindy Russo looked ready to ease on down the road to the rest of a happy Friday night, if not into Sunday's championship game against LSU, which took out No. 12 West Virginia. It's been a few years since FIU had a win like this one, over a high quality opponent.
How did it happen? Want-to.
"I think the team came together and decided that we can't let any team beat us again like Gulf Coast did," senior forward Finda Mansare said.
While work ethic sometimes gets underrated as a skill, effort sometimes gets overrated as a factor. Too often, fans conclude their team didn't win because somebody didn't try hard enough or care enough. Most of the time, however, it's that the winning team simply had more talent and/or was better coached. All but a few players and coaches work hard. The best players and coaches work smart.
All that said, FIU beat Iowa on second half defense, rebounding and getting to loose balls: the effort areas. Iowa missed free throws at a key juncture, but so did FIU, which twice blew the front end of one-and-ones. In the end, FIU shot 14 of 17 from the line, 82.4 percent, and Iowa shot 10 of 13, 76.9 percent. Iowa finished fourth in the nation last year hitting 79.4 percent. Iowa's three misses all were by Claire Till and were Iowa's last three free throws of the game, but that was to be expected -- Till came into the game five of eight for the season. She was five of five in the game before missing three free throws to finish, yep, five of eight.
Defensively, FIU forced the same number of turnovers as in the first half, eight, but four were steals as opposed to two in the first half. FIU had 20 points off turnovers to Iowa's six in the game. The shooting percentage difference is negligble, 43.8 in the first half to 40.0 in the second half, but between more turnovers and allowing fewer rebounds, FIU held Iowa to 25 shots in the second half compared to 32 in the first half.
"We just weren't playing (the matchup zone) right," Russo said. "At halftime, we had a chance to adjust."
Then, look at rebounding. Iowa outrebounded FIU 12-8 at FIU's offensive end in the first half, but also 9-8 at the Hawkeyes offensive end. In the second half, FIU outrebounded Iowa 10-7 when on defense and were even, 11-11, on offense. Finda Mansare finished with a game-high eight rebounds.
To me, the key possession of the game was the one with FIU down 62-54 after Melissa Dixon's three-pointer. I thought that was the death blow. FIU came out of their timeout with 2:26 left. Coley missed, but Mansare got the board. Mansare missed the putback and Coley got that rebound. Coley got swatted on a drive by Iowa's Morgan Johnson. Then, with the shot clock winding down, she fired in a deep three-pointer. That whole sequence got continuances out of rebounding, sheer effort.
"That was a little iffy, I just threw it up there to hit the rim," Coley said.
Kamika Idom played four minutes. Her stat line reads zero for one from the field, zero from one from three-point range, one rebound. That one rebound was chasing down Till's final free throw miss and getting the final break going.
That's want-to. The kind fhat made a difference Friday night.
FIU junior guard Jerica Coley drove the length of the court and threw in a short leaner off the glass over Jamie Printy as time expired to give FIU a 66-65 win over 4-2 Iowa in the first game of the FIU Thanksgiving Classic. Coley finished with 31 points. Printy's 15 points led Iowa. FIU's Finda Mansare had a game-high eight rebounds.
Though Iowa sits outside the Top 25, the Hawkeyes received votes in the AP poll and are a traditionally strong team from a state where girls/women's basketball has more tradition than men's ball. FIU plays the winner of Friday's late game, No. 12 West Virginia vs. LSU.
All three quarterbacks took first team reps at Tuesday's practice.
Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning, the Sun Belt's total offense leader at 305.1 yards per game, is back from injury. With a bruised sternum last year, he totalled 347 yards of offense against FIU. Last week against North Texas, Browning went 25 of 34 for 324 yards and three touchdowns as Monroe began their Leaving La Sun Belt back-to-back with a 42-16 win.
Forgot this in the postgame blog from Friday night -- FAU Stadium is the college kid showing up to the job interview in a Barney's suit. By comparison, FIU Stadium is the college kid showing up to the job interview with a Polo fresh from the flawed bin and his new, ill-fitting pants halfway down his butt.
Marina Carmona, a catcher out of Wellington Palm Beach Central High, hit .384 with 25 RBI as a junior
Gabreilla Spallone, an outfielder out of Palm betto High was a First Team All-Dade player with a .556 average and 31 RBI.
Stephanie Texeira was a First Team Miami Herald All-Dade small school player for Gulliver and Class 4A Offensive Player of the Year according to the Orlando Sentinel. She hit .464 with five homers and 33 RBI. Like Spallone, she played club softball with the Miami Stingrays.
And, because Mike Bernal mentioned this on Facebook...
On the weekly Sun Belt coaches conference call, head coach Mario Cristobal said "we forsee him being able to go" as far as starting quarterback Jake Medlock and this week against Louisiana-Monroe.
Medlock left FAU Stadium with his left arm in a sling after getting thrown down on that shoulder in the fourth quarter. He remained in the game until the end. It seems as if every other game, Medlock leaves the field with some part of him dragging. Cristobal thought it was because his season-ending shoulder injury last year prevented Medlock from building physical durability in the offseason.
ULM opened as a five-point favorite at most books and is now up to six.
Sophomore Richard Leonard set an FIU record -- and gave FIU the lead for good seconds after FAU took its first lead -- with his 100-yard kickoff return Friday night. He also took his only punt return back 13 yards, a good return that was a step from being great. He aveaged 22.7 yards on his other three kickoff returns.
That was good enough for Leonard to be named the Sun Belt's Special Teams Player of the Week. That's the second consecutive game FIU's had a POW, linebacker Jordan Hunt winning the defensive honor two weeks ago.
Full disclosure: the conference polls media and I voted for Leonard. I also voted for Hunt. I have not, however, voted for every FIU player nominated for a Sun Belt POW award.
Leonard also was named National Kick Returner of the Week by the College Football Performance Awards.
Well, that tripped into Bizarro World. Or, maybe, as it involved Men of Owls, Earth 2 (Earth 3 for you Silver Agers).
The maligned defense that couldn't rush the passer the first half of the season with cattle prods got four sacks for 25 yards in losses as it set an FIU record for fewest rush yards allowed, minus 12. But even discounting the sacks, FAU would've had only 13 yards on 15 carries, still undercutting the previous record of 28 yards allowed to FAMU in 2005.
The special teams that had brought only heartache came up huge. An offensive tackle ran for a touchdown on FIU's most effective non-Jake Medlock running play of the first half. An FAU touchdown recalled John Mackey's Super Bowl V tip drill. A security guard gets his leg snapped on the sideline. Lightning delay.
"It's been a weird season, man. I don't know if the football gods or...who knows?" said senior safety Johnathan Cyprien, who had an interception, several chilling hits and played with a special ferocity.
Hyperbuoyant FIU players toted boxes of postgame Popeye's to the buses near 1 a.m. Saturday. With all that's happened this season, they know that the trophy so many touched on the way out for the game would remain at their school for at least the next several years.
Quarterback Jake Medlock exited the locker room with his left arm in a sling. He got slammed down on the left shoulder late in the game and trotted to the sideline with his upper body doing the Crip Dip to the left. There's only one game left. What's the difference between 3-9 and 4-8? Nothing to you and me. Everything to players and coaches.
FIU came into the game knowing FAU tended toward man coverage and, as Cristobal said to me earlier this week, ran defenses that shut down typical spread plays. So, it was almost infuriating watching FIU bang its head obstinately into a stone wall on first and second down runs in the first half, putting themselves in tough third down scenarios that let FAU come at Medlock heedlessly. At halftime, offensive tackle Rupert Bryan had 5 yards rushing. That put him only one behind Kedrick Rhodes (6 on eight carries) and ahead of Darrian Mallary (4 on two carries). Cristobal said after the game they had to keep FAU honest.
Medlock was eight of 12 for 170 yards in the first half and nine of 16 for 94 yards in the second half.FIU called one run on the 11-play drive to the Times touchdown that gave them a 27-17 lead in the third quarter and one on the first six plays of the drive to the 34-24 lead.
On that sixth play, Medlock got his helmet yanked off. That meant he had to leave the game for at least a play and FIU wasn't going to have freshman E.J. Hilliard come in cold to throw on second and 7. That's why Rhodes' 31-yard run on that play was the most Ours Are Bigger moment of the night. Everybody knew Rhodes would get the ball. A squashed run would leave FIU facing third and long up only 27-24 at the edge of kicker Jack Griffin's Maybe range. But the line muscled a hole on the left side and Rhodes steamed on through to the FAU 6. After that play, you let the line and Rhodes finish it out and they did.
The FAU touchdown that closed the gap also fit into the unusual. Linebacker Winston Fraser leaped to tip a pass, usually a good play, but one that had a two-pronged negative effect. No. 1, it deflected the ball away from a good interception chance and, No. 2, it cast Fraser as Mel Renfro to FAU freshman Jenson Stoshak's John Mackey (Stoshak even wore No. 88).
That type of 60-yard touchdown often ignites one team while torching another. Not this time.
Most of that first half passing yardage came on the opening, 99-yard drive that should've been a hint to open things up sooner. Jacob Younger got behind the corner on a streak up the sideline for 46 yards on FIU's second play. When a guy with mediocre speed does that to a corner, the buffet is open. At the end of that drive, right as I was thinking, "They need to get the ball to Willis Wright," they did and Wright showed why. Yeah, he was wide open, but he bounced off one bad tackle attempt and then treated freshman cornerback D'Joun Smith like, well, a freshman. As Wright stiff-armed, then dragged Smith into the end zone, it reminded me of a big brother trying to leave on a date and telling his little brother, "Come on, man, stop playin', I've got to go."
The night's biggest counterpunch, Richard Leonard's 100-yard kickoff return, also counts as a "feel good" moment. Leonard's troubles this season in pass coverage and on returns have been well-documented, moments that turned games against the Panthers. But this electric play, on which Leonard sprinted through a serious hole -- "we saw they had a weakness on the right side and we took advantage of it," he said -- the fastest Panther was the catalyst of positive change.
Leonard averaged 22.7 yards per return on his other three kickoff returns against what had been the Sun Belt's best kickoff coverage team. And his one punt return went for 13 yards. He should get serious consideration for Sun Belt Special Teams Player of the Week. Leonard also gets to run his mouth with FAU's No. 3, redshirt junior Keith Reaser, another Killian grad with whom Leonard's tight.
I felt bad for freshman Jeremiah McKinnon, one of FIU's better special teams players this season, when the FAU punt bounced off his helmet and the Owls recovered. Either Wayne Times didn't do a good enough job of giving McKinnon a heads up or McKinnon didn't hear him. Whichever, at least the defense rose up to hold the Owlmen to a field goal. Previous lost fumbled punts -- against Duke, Akron and Louisville -- turned into touchdowns.
Rupert Bryan's touchdown was beautifully constructed. The alignment indicated a power run, probably to the left, as did Wright coming in motion to the left and pausing in the H-back spot. If a canny defender was of a mind to look for the counter run right, at the snap, Medlock moved to his left as if on a run-pass option. Then, just before being dragged down, he threw back and to his right.
Back...and to the right. Back...and to the right. Important because the play being a lateral meant Bryan didn't have to report as an eligible receiver. He's just a ball carrier. Bryan claimed he hadn't run the ball even in high school, but he knew what to do near the goal line -- put his head down and let momentous bulk buffalo him into the end zone.
As Deion Sanders once said narrating a lineman run, "Winter's coming and big men need love, too!" Bryan got some on SportsCenter as one of the Top 10 Plays of the Day.
SWIMMING & DIVING
CollegeSwimming.com ranks FIU 15th among the nation's mid-majors, the program's best ranking ever. FIU next hits the pool Nov. 29 at the Mizzou Invitational.
Tonight’s pregame blog is sponsored by the letter E. My needle’s laying there. Might have to bring a colada with me to Boca Friday night.
A few things about FAU: Pelini’s a defensive guy and the Owls lead the Sun Belt in pass defense for conference games. Now, part of that is that they’ve had only 156 passes thrown on them, the fewest in The Belt and almost 10 percent less than second fewest Troy and Middle Tennessee. After all, they’re eighth in rush defense (guess who’s last). But the Owls also have allowed only 52.6 completion percentage. Second best is Western’s 57.1.
FAU’s last three Sun Belt games: a 37-34 overtime loss at South Alabama, where FIU needed its best half of defense this season to hang on to a win; a 34-27 home win against Troy, which came from 16 down in the second half to nip FIU, 38-37; and a 37-28 home upset of Western Kentucky, against which FIU’s managed five field goals the last two years.
That’s better results than FIU against the same opponents -- in the same places, for two of them – for a team with less raw talent and experience.
Particularly intrigued by the wins against Troy and Western, I checked them out as best I could. FAU outscored Troy, which had Corey Robinson at quarterback instead of Deon Anthony. FIU might’ve preferred facing Robinson’s experience instead of Anthony’s feet and a the Ken Anderson arm he leased for the day. Whatever, the point is there wasn’t anything special there.
But 37 points on Western? They moved the ball somewhat on the Hillbillies, 355 yards. Quarterback Graham Wilbert got hot on an 84-yard drive. But they also had two touchdowns set up by interceptions; a fumble return touchdown off the last second desperate hook-and-lateral attempt; a touchdown after a 48-yard punt return; and a long field goal after a failed Western fourth down at the FAU 43.
FIU head coach Mario Cristobal described FAU’s defense as one that plays a lot of man coverage. That explains the trouble Western had with FAU’s pass defense – quarterback Kawaun Jakes can’t throw downfield. FIU’s Jake Medlock can.
Cristobal also said FAU takes away some of what the spread really likes to do. At Sun Belt media day, Pelini was confident he’d be able to scheme well against the spread. Running back Kedrick Rhodes isn’t good for a whole game. I’m not sure what sin of Jeremiah Harden has gotten him buried on the bench. Darian Mallary’s wearing down. Perhaps Medlock’s mobility’s improved after a couple of weeks to rest a body with more dents than a rambunctiously driven taxi.
FIU’s been getting to the quarterback lately and, despite Graham Wiltert’s being tough to topple at 6-6, FAU’s given up 17 sacks in conference games. Only FIU’s given up more. Also, Wilbert’s on a string of 214 passes without an interception.
Give FIU an intangible advantage for coming off a late season bye, but only slightly because FAU’s got to be feeling good about itself after taking out Western last Saturday.
FIU’s started quickly the last few games, getting big plays downfield to Willis Wright, Glenn Coleman and, against South Alabama, Jacob Younger. I see something similar here. And if the Panthers get up, they’ve got to keep strafing. They didn’t need to be so extremely Bo & Woody in the second half against South Alabama. For some reason, I’m also feeling a big kickoff return, though FAU’s had the Sun Belt’s best kickoff coverage in conference games.
(Late in the season, I like to use the conference games comparison – generally measures games against similar competition and the games tend to be more recent.)
I’m thinking FAU moves the ball through the air. Three long touchdown drives. But FIU gets a fumble somewhere, maybe giving the Panthers a short field. FIU gets points off of it so long as that’s not where their lost fumble (trends say there will be one) occurs.
If it comes down to the kicker, throw up the hands. Not in the “It’s good!” signal, but more in the “I have no idea what’s going to happen.” Neither FIU’s Jack Griffin nor FAU’s Mitch Anderson (six of 10) can claim Volvo reliability these days. Anderson’s shown more length this year.
Feeling 34-31, FAU. But, that’s just one black man’s opinion. I could be wrong.
FIU lost 3-1 to Western Kentucky during the regular season, the only Sun Belt match that Western didn't win 3-0.
The Panthers didn't fare as well Thursday in the Sun Belt conference tournament, getting zapped by the Hillpeople 25-12, 25-12, 25-19. FIU ends the season at 10-19.
At the pre-tournament banquet, where the Sun Belt volleyball teams get served before being served to host Western Kentucky, FIU senior Marija Prsa was named Second Team All-Sun Belt. Prsa led FIU in kills with 360 and was second to Ryanne Milligan with 259 digs.
FIU faces No. 1 seed Western Kentucky Thursday night at 6 p.m. in the first round of the tournament.
Mentioning Milligan, a Jasper, Ind., native, reminds me that I meant to include this video in the previous post on her as the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Week...
Sonia Perez won the 400 Individual Medley in a dual meet with North Florida, then stole the show by winning her guest star appearances in the 200 butterfly and 200 breaststroke. Her 4:20.97 in the 400 IM was the 33rd best in the nation this year.
For this, Perez was named the Sun Belt's Swimmer of the Week Wednesday.
FIU opened a 1.5-point favorite over FAU for Friday night's Shula Bowl. Now, across the Vegas sportsbooks, FAU is a 1.5 to 2-point favorite. The over/under sits at 52, which, to me, seems on the low side.
And, in Davie, tight end Michael Egnew, a player the big-play-starved Dolphins took while leaving T.Y. Hilton on the board, has yet to get into his first NFL game.
Senior Ryanne Milligan's 61 digs in the 12 sets of FIU volleyball last week got her the Sun Belt's Defensive Player of the Week Award. Milligan had 29 digs in the five-set grind against South Alabama that got FIU into the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
Milligan transferred to FIU this season after three years at Marshall.