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.