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A few thoughts from UCF 38, FIU 0

Well, I got the 38 part right.

I'm having a hard time understanding why anybody's shocked or irate about the first two football games. Let's be realistic -- this was a six-win team, maximum, with everybody healthy and eligible. Go around the country, pluck the top two wide receivers, top running back, top cornerback/return man off the roster of six-win teams. Then, have that team lose three more starters to injury -- with a steep dropoff to second string -- in the first game. With a new coaching staff and new systems.

A six-win team disintegrates into a likely one-to-three-win team. Friday night, that team played a Central Florida team that'll win eight to 10 regular season games. This isn't about players' effort or coaching, much as we all love to question play calls and strategic decisions. This is a team that's stripped down like an '82 IROC Z-28 Camaro abandoned in Hialeah.

Could FIU have won this game? Not without firearms (don't get any ideas in The Towers...). Could they have made it more respectable? Sure. But it just would've been delaying the inevitable.

Remember when I wrote about the drops in training camp, not just among the wide receivers, but among the defensive backs? What I had in mind are plays such as UCF's first third down. Blake Bortles threw late across the field, a big boo-boo in Quarterback School. FIU's Justin Halley jumped in, and dribbled a gimme pick six.

On FIU's first drive, third and 3 became third and 8 because of too many men on the field. That's the kind of early season mistake coaches make, hate, expect, yet wish they could eradicate from the universe. Then FIU completes a 7 1/3-yard pass on third and 8. The same thing happened on FIU's second possession, 9 1/2 yards to T.J. Lowder on third and 10. Ron Turner exploded at the officials over the spot or the lack of measurement.

Between those drives, UCF took a 7-0 lead on a drive that should've been a three-and-out. Bortles broke containment (a loose term for FIU the first two games) on third and 15 and scrambled for 19 yards.

Four drives into the game, that's four plays FIU could've made to score, get the defense off the field or keep the defense off the field as well as keep game scoreless and the field balanced. I didn't even include the two drops, one of which would've been a first down. Instead, after a 16-yard J.J. Worton punt return, UCF set up only 44 yards from 14-0 and the snowball began a-rollin' in the second quarter.

Turner went traditional football coach uptight on fourth and 2 from the UCF 40. He ordered up a punt. Afterwards, he defended the move the traditional way, talking percentages. To me, this is where you have to feel the game, go off chart as well as remember who or what you are. The score was 17-0. UCF had scored on its previous two possessions. FIU had driven 35 yards, propelled by a roughing the passer penalty, yes, but it was the Panthers' best drive of the night thus far. A struggling offense needed its spirits rebooted by a coaching staff showing confidence in them.

Instead, FIU punted and got a net of 20 yards when Michael Wakefield, standing inside the 5, couldn't locate the ball and it bounced near him, then into the end zone. Momentum had been available for a moment. But when FIU failed to ask Momentum to dance, UCF returned from the punch bowl and said to Momentum, "Get down on it" -- first play, Bortles deep to Rannell Hall beyond Randy Harvey (told you, they'd pick on him when needed) for 59 yards. Soon after, 24-0.

I'm not sure why sophomore cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon didn't play. I know he wasn't happy about it. He Tweeted "First college game I'm not playing in, smh I'm bout to go home man!"

Once again, the offense looked much better in the hurry-up. Quarterback Jake Medlock actually made some nice throws, particularly two to redshirt sophomore wide receiver T.J. Lowder. Still, he missed two throws to sophomore wide receiver DeAndre Jasper that count as disheartening -- behind Jasper on a blitz for what would've been a first down and just flat missed Jasper deep when he didn't realize he had time to set his feet on a scramble outside the pocket. That would've been a touchdown.

E.J. Hilliard went three for three in relief of Medlock. Unlike last week, when Hilliard looked like the right rhythm section for this offensive band and Medlock looked like Spike Jones drummer playing with Thelonious Monk, the numbers don't correlate to what happened on the field. This still needs to be an open competition, however.

(Jasper's made his preference known on Twitter. He retweeted an FIU fan declaring to Hilliard "We want E.J. Hilliard...I started that chant fool. We need you in NOW.")

On defense, what happened is what everyone knew might happen. A secondary down two starters got flambeed by a good quarterback and experienced wide receivers with size and speed. A defense that got no rest eventually got pushed around somewhat by a strong offensive line.

This isn't hard, folks. UCF has better players who are more mature mentally and physically, guided by a staff headed by a good coach in his 10th year at the school. Maryland had better players who were more mature mentally and physically. So will East Carolina, Marshall and Middle Tennessee. This isn't a Disney movie where some player or coach discovers the latent greatness in those around him. This is real life, when what greatness there is on this roster, will take time to develop. 

Kill time during games playing The Blame Game -- is this Pete Garcia's fault for firing Mario Cristobal, for halting staff and football operations work for the month after the firing or for not making sure there are enough resources for academic support? Is this Cristobal's fault for gaps left on the roster, for recruiting kids who flopped academically (spare me the excuses, footballers -- other athletes who spend just as much time as you do on their sport,  if not more, handle their business)? Is it the fault of those players once counted upon to ameliorate the pain of rebuilding and only have exacerbated it by off-the-field failures?

Whatever you decide the answer is, right now, this team is going to have to work very hard for whatever it gets. This season, the Panthers will live The Struggle.

 

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