During spring break my senior year in college, current ace NASCAR writer Dustin Long and I
decided to attend a high school basketball tournament sectional (first round) final. I put one qualifier when we were picking out which one we’d hit – I wanted one where neither team was likely to go much farther in the tournament. This sectional final likely would be the summit of their season. The previous night, we’d seen excellence, the No. 2-ranked team in the state. That night, I wanted to see desire and desperation.
I wanted what I saw from FIU and Southern Mississippi Saturday.
There were several times you could tell this game featured two teams ranked in the nation’s bottom 10. The final field goal attempt was 5 yards more makeable because Giovanni Francois jumped offside on a clock-stopping spike a play earlier. The whole sequence that took FIU from first and 10 on the 22 to safety – 4-yard loss on a blown block, too many men in the huddle, snap through quarterback
Jake Medlock’s arms – could’ve been a California Atoms outtake from Gus. Passes get dropped by Southern Miss like they were cell phone calls in West Virginia. The home side can’t get out of the way of punts, their own or opponents’. Four turnovers, a bumbling fortnight for most teams, is a Saturday afternoon shift for Southern Miss.
But both sides played hungry. Before the fourth quarter, FIU gathered as a team on the 10-yard line in the enclosed end of the stadium, bounced and yelled, getting themselves jacked up almost in a pregame manner. The energy and want was palpable.
“We were both fighting for a W,” sophomore quarterback EJ Hilliard said. “We were both
willing to do whatever it took to get a win.”
That produced some plays and hits that made you smile with “Ah, football.” Guys got clocked. Some
of the violence you’d think might wear down a small-to-mid-size back such as freshman Silas Spearman III. Spearman ran bigger and stronger than he looks and did so 29 times. By the end of the game, FIU’s maligned offense line opened holes on a weary Southern Miss defense and Spearman burst through with alacrity.
“During the week, our coaches had me in the game plan,” Spearman said. “They didn’t say
when I would get in or what plays I would get. They just told me I needed to
stay ready so I wouldn’t have to get ready.”
Smart move by the coaching staff to realize Spearman was the hot back and the one with some boogaloo. Sophomore Lamarq Caldwell fits better as a fullback, which is what he played at times Saturday. Whether using Spearman and Caldwell in a traditional I-formation tailback/fullback pairing will work as well in the future is up in the air. But it did Saturday and should get a look the next
couple of weeks.
Playing hungry also meant nobody went into a shell in the face of mounting momentum or
Example: Southern Miss ate FIU up all day on the play action pass over the middle to Markese Triplett, usually matched up against fifth-year senior middle linebacker Markeith Russell. The play action would freeze the linebackers better than Captain Cold’s gun and Triplett would stride by into an open area. Triplett beat the frozen Russell for the game’s first score, a 13-yard touchdown reception. He beat Russell’s replacement, freshman Treyvon Williams, for a 6-yard touchdown that put Southern Miss up 23-21 in the third quarter.
But Russell bopped Triplett to break up a third-and-10 pass from the Southern Miss 27 on the final drive. Triplett beat Russell the next two plays, for 13 yards on fourth down and 12 yards, but the third down breakup cost Southern Miss that most valuable and irreplaceable commodity – time. Who knows what happens if the Golden Eagles have time to run one more play before the field goal attempt?
Southern Miss made sport of the Panthers on the Golden Eagles first possession and responded to FIU’s first touchdown with one of their own on the next possession. But FIU rebounded from the lousy start to tie the game at 7-7 and 14-14. After that safety sent Medlock to the sideline permanently, FIU twice took the ball from Southern Miss, on Randy Harvey’s interception and Isame Faciane’s recovery of a Greg Hickman-caused fumble (that’s seven for Hickman, an FIU career record). In two minutes, the game went from slipping away from FIU at 16-14 with Southern Miss having the ball at the FIU 49 and driving to a 21-16 FIU halftime lead.
When Medlock went down, E.J. Hilliard came in and guided the offense not to everything they
wanted, but they got what they needed. Coming in mid-game against Southern Miss should be an hour in the bouncy house for Hilliard compared to coming in at halftime against future Sugar Bowl-winner Louisville; starting against bowl teams Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe last year; and starting against Louisville this year. Plus, this time, the play-calling actually gave him a chance.
Hilliard’s biggest completion might’ve been the fourth-and-2 throw to freshman tight end Jonnu
Smith. Smith broke a tackle and got 17 yards down to the Southern Miss 17. That got FIU into Austin Taylor’s range for what turned out to be the game-winning field goal.
Hilliard still seems to be a one-read or one-and-a-half-read quarterback. Of course, some of that is dealing with the pocket pressure. FIU sometimes limiting him to throwing on third and long doesn’t help, but it made sense to run Spearman as often as they did Saturday.
What didn’t make sense to me was the 45-yard field goal attempt by freshman Austin Taylor that missed and gave Southern Miss the ball with 1:00 left in the game. Taylor hadn’t shown that kind of range, at least not in a game. FIU coach Ron Turner said the original thought was to go for it on third and 8 from the Southern Miss 28, but he went for the points to extend the lead so that Southern Miss would need a touchdown. That seems perfect pooch punt territory.
Safety Demarkus Perkins added an element of violence to the secondary for FIU.
Sophomore Chris Ayers averaged 33.8 yards per punt. The first time Ayers did a rugby punt, FIU wound up getting a bounce-off-the-return-team fumble. At least that gives him the roll as he hasn’t been getting enough distance the usual way.
Senior cornerback Sam Miller led FIU with nine total tackles, including a tackle for loss, and got flagged three times for pass interference -- one doubtful, one questionable, one clear cut good call. It was that kind of day for everyone.