You could almost see the exhale on the face of each person wearing an FIU polo around Ladd-Peebles Stadium. With reason.
What’s frustrating about this season for FIU is it’s not as if they’ve just been abysmal overall. Each week, they’ve flashed the football team they expected to be for a quarter or a half. That makes each loss more crushing. And brought such relief Saturday.
The first half, FIU crushed the newcomers to FBS and the Sun Belt, devouring massive chunks of yards as effortlessly as Galactus sucks down an asteroid. Particularly the left side of the line, where Caylin Hauptmann and David Istanich work, pried open holes through which Kedrick Rhodes raced. Rhodes said after the game he was 80 percent back, not bad for a running back who admitted he’s been nursing two sprained ankles.
Rhodes isn’t the only one who thought FIU might have to pass to set up the run. Wide receiver Jacob Younger said they were told South Alabama plays a lot of man coverage, so the wideouts had to win those battles. In the first half, when the wide receivers did, FIU looked unstoppable. With the running game going, Younger and Willis Wright cruised to touchdown passes off play action. Younger made a nice brake-slide-jump move to outmaneuver cornerback Darrius Morrow for a slightly underthrown bomb and a 35-yard gain to set up another score.
That was the last first down pass FIU threw other than a poorly run flea flicker to a triple-covered Younger in the third quarter. FIU played rope-a-dope in the second half – two first downs, 31 yards of offense. South Alabama started sitting on the give to the running back. Rhodes’ pregame shot wore off. Darian Mallary didn’t have it Saturday. Medlock ran for a touchdown in the first half, but got hammered a few times early in the second half, slowing him down. With FIU almost refusing to pass on first down, this left the Panthers living at second or third in long most of the second half. Receivers weren’t beating coverage as they did in the first half. And some of the route running and improvisation was, well….On one play, as Medlock stepped outside the pocket, three receivers not only adjusted late, but ran so close together that with the defensive backs, it looked like a mini-flash mob doing the Thriller video dance.
Fortunately for FIU, the defense held South Alabama to two field goals after the Jaguars opened the second half swinging, connecting on a 75-yard bomb to Corey Besteda behind Junior Mertile (Mertile got grounded to the sideline after that). They gave up yards. South Alabama clearly noticed that FIU sometimes had trouble setting the edge against Western Kentucky and got T.J. Glover and Terrance Timmons around the left flank early. And tight end Wes Saxon led a pride of Jaguar receivers who nestled into the soft spot in FIU’s middle area coverage. Ross Metheny went 19 of 37 for 270 yards and a touchdown and ran for 56 yards (really 68 yards on six carries – that colleges count sacks as part of the rushing total is archaic and stupid). I’m not sure why FIU doesn’t play a more aggressive coverage in the short zones against quarterbacks unlikely to beat them downfield.
Though the defense gave up more than you might expect, they also got turnovers and timely plays. They created fumbles (Winston Fraser, Jordan Hunt), hung onto interceptions (Johnathan Cyprien, Hunt again), broke up passes. It wasn’t just defense by offensive failure. And USA showed a lack of composure at perhaps the pivotal sequence in the second half.
Down 28-17 with second and goal at the 4, Metheny seemed to have trouble getting the play from the sideline. He called USA’s second timeout of the half. Then, Metheny, with way too much time for down there, found Brynt Lavender near the goal line. Lavender’s dive for the pass landed him on the goal line. I thought he was in, but heard later that the replay showed his right shoulder was in while the ball was still outside the goal line.
Third and less than a yard for a touchdown. Demetre Baker, a running back lined up at tight end, jumped early. That pushed USA back to just outside the 5. More trouble with the play, more confusion. USA blew its last timeout. Jordan Hunt almost picked off Metheny on third down. USA took the field goal.
Now this is where coach control freakness, particularly at the college level, costs teams badly. Bad enough that you’re having problems getting a play in when it’s this late in the season and you’re not exactly playing in Death Valley. But blowing a timeout instead of taking a delay of game penalty? Bad trade. You’ve only got three timeouts and, in a close game, odds are, you’ll need them. It was the worst wasting of timeouts I’ve seen during an FIU game and that’s saying something, considering how FIU will call a timeout if the blades of grass lean an unexpected way.
Why not just do something wacky and just let the quarterback, who should be well versed in your offense and personnel, call the daggone play? Because coaches, instinctively, are risk averse. College coaches feel out of control as it is – much of your job relies on getting a bunch of 18-to-22-year-old men to go to class, stay out of trouble and do what they’re supposed to do on a football field. To let even the best of those kids decide what path the team will take in an important situation goes against instincts.
(Which is why FIU coaches get some big ups for letting the defense talk them into challenge a ruling that Baker was down before he fumbled in the third quarter. Winston Fraser dough-popped Baker, the ball came out, Sam Miller jumped on it while officials were signaling Baker was down. The whole defense mimed throwing a challenge flag. Greg Hickman was still doing it as he lined up with the punt team. FIU challenged and the call got reversed, their first challenge win of the season.)
Knee jerk conservatism also got FIU a break when USA decided to take the field goal on fourth and 4 from the FIU 6 with 5:17 left. The previous field goal made sense – early in the fourth and the Jaguars could figure they’d be back near the goal line with the way they were moving the ball. And, indeed, they were back. Hunt, who should get Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Week consideration, knocked away a third down pass with Saxon open in the end zone.
If USA goes for it and gets it, they have a shot at tying the game. If they don’t get it, an FIU offense that hasn’t moved the ball starts inside its own 10. With a field goal, they would’ve kicked off, FIU likely gets the ball in better field position and the Jaguars still would need a touchdown.
That’s with a made field goal. The Jaguars missed the chip shot. And FIU, starting at the 20, went three and out.
Still, it worked out for FIU. Sort of like the game overall.