Before we get started, must notice that the women's soccer team got its first win of the season, 2-0 over Stetson, Friday night at Camp Mitch. Junior Ashleigh Shim and sophomore Madlen Weinhardt scored for FIU, which will host Florida Sunday.
Tough start to the weekend for FIU's roadies: volleyball lost a five-setter to High Point and got swept by host South Carolina at the Gamecock Invitational. Around the time that was ending, the men's soccer team was just getting started against Loyola Marymount. They didn't start scoring until already down 2-0, Roberto Altiero scoring off a Nelson Milsaint setup, and lost 2-1.
Thinking about FIU football as I rolled across the federally funded 95s of Maryland to the home of close friends I haven’t seen since double-dipper Steve McNair was the Ravens quarterback, I thought of British racing driver Nigel Mansell again.
Mansell’s first race week for Ferrari, the 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix, went so disastrously that he told his wife and children they’d make the British Airways flight home that would leave before the race ended. Surely, the car would break down early. He wrote in his autobiography that he shared his feelings with the pilot, an acquaintance who offered to tarry a bit if the Mansells seemed to be running behind.
Instead, the car behaved as it hadn’t shown it could. Mansell drove its wheels off. The BA flight left late, but without the Mansell family. Nigel left the next day with his family, the points for a first place finish and cuts on his hands from the sharp handles on the trophy.
Like Mansell, there’s no reason FIU should win this game. In practice, they’ve looked like what they’ve been since the spring – novices in the offense, sloppy in all three phases of the game – only less so as they’ve slowly improved. The quarterbacks get the ball out a fraction faster now but still doesn't look like they're friends with this offense yet. It's a relationship in progress.
“We’ll keep it simple, early,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “Your first year in a program, there are a lot of things you might want to do and you can’t. So we’ve got to take every situation – first or second down, third down, red zone, whatever it might be – and say “What are the things we do well in our base offense?” and do those.
“Once we master those and do those well, then we can expand and game plan. We probably won’t be able to game plan as much early as I’m used to doing just because the guys aren’t ready for that yet. We’ll have enough to attack defenses and do what we want to do. There will be a lot of things I’d look at on film and say, “Man, this would be good” and put it on the back burner for later, maybe later in the year we can do it or it might not be until next year.”
Schematically, FIU’s lack of complexity on both sides of the ball leaves this as a matchup of who plays a cleaner, crisper game and who has the better athletes. The answer to both questions, logically, should be Maryland.
Yet…the Terrapins quarterback, C.J. Brown, wasn’t exactly Ken Anderson back in 2011 before missing
the entire 2012 season. Why should Brown, in his first game in almost two years, be any better than the sub-50 percent percent passer he was then? True, he didn’t have a Stefon Diggs in 2011. Brown also doesn’t have a single pass thrown under real pressure in almost two years. And I think FIU might get a good inside pass rush push, which no quarterback likes.
That’s why I see Maryland using Brown’s running ability and an abundance of misdirection, cutback plays and reverses to take advantage of FIU’s youth and enthusiasm at outside linebacker and corner. They’ll try to make someone other than Diggs beat them. Wide receiver Deon Long might be up to the task.
On offense, if Lamarq Caldwell can a) average 4.0 yards a carry early in the game and b) hold onto the ball, FIU will be able to get some long drives going that’ll calm down the Krabby Patty Cake crowd. This fan base loves its Terps, but isn’t in love with head coach Randy Edsall.
An inexperienced FIU offensive line gets a Maryland defensive line that’s also largely unproven. I asked offensive line coach/run game coordinator Steve Shankweiler what he wanted to see from his offensive line.
“I just want them to play with some composure,” Shankweiler said. “It’s the first time for all of them except maybe for one. I’m not even talking about being a starter, I’m talking about playing. Just maintain your composure. Don’t chase ghosts – a three-technique is a three-technique. Don’t try to see too much. We’ve got the game plan very,very simple, which hopefully will allow them to play aggressively and not have to think as much. That’s the way we’re going to be most of the year. We’re
going to try to develop in this program a physical toughness. You do that when you’re confident. It’s going to take some games for us to get that confidence level.”
In the Terps 3-4, inside linebacker Cole Farrand is the leading returning backler, but senior cornerback Dexter McDougle is second among returnees. When your cornerback’s that high among returning tacklers, your front seven was getting blocked and/or you’re allowing too many completed passes. I think FIU might catch Maryland napping with a bomb either early in the game or when the Panthers start backed up inside their own 10.
An upset requires a positive special teams play – downing the ball deep, a turnover, a Seth Thomas-cleaning hit. Let’s see how that facet plays with a punter and a kicker in their first games and a placekick holder who hasn't done it since high school (but clearly was best in practice). Without junior Richard Leonard on returns, a guy like freshman Shug Oyegunle might show everybody that he’s got wiggle to go with his speed.
A much better FIU team went on the road in last year’s season opener and got spanked by a better ACC opponent than the Panthers face today. FIU committed ill-timed fumbles, blew field goal snaps, tackles, generally played disastrously.
I don’t know that this team won’t play just as poorly. But I also don’t know that Maryland won’t lay an egg. Or a pile.
Call it 34-14, Maryland. That’s just one black man’s opinion. I could be wrong.