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A few thoughts from ULM 23, FIU 17 (OT)

That figured.

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).

3-9.

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