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.