As FIU trailed 21-13 in the fourth quarter, I thought, “This is easily their best game of the year.” I’d hold to that statement even considering the final score.
East Carolina’s a good team, probably the best in Conference USA. They’ve got experience and a crispness honed from years of playing together where FIU’s still trying to find players to coalesce. They've got a great offense, excellent special teams and good enough defense. What set up and began as a blowout turned into a tense struggle with the Panthers trading blows evenly with the Pirates from the middle of the second quarter to the middle of the fourth. In the end, the deeper, more experienced team made the big play on a trick play (young teams can be particularly gullible) to force FIU into a one-dimensional offense.
The nine sacks of E.J. Hilliard – five in the fourth quarter after the flanker reverse pass touchdown made it 28-13 – skewed the rushing yards a bit. Lamarq Caldwell ran for 53 yards on only 10 carries. Caldwell’s power fit this game better than freshman Silas Spearman’s shifty speed. Caldwell also had three catches for 30 yards.
Freshman tight end Jonnu Smith clearly is FIU’s most consistent offensive skill position player. It’ll be interesting to see how he changes as his still-young body does. Right now, Smith’s both security blanket (Hilliard’s term) and big play threat. FIU needs another Smith on offense and a couple on defense to emerge for this program to make the leap forward that’ll keep the rebuilding from being the building of the Second Avenue Subway line.
Redshirt junior quarterback Jake Medlock doing the Danny White could’ve been done weeks ago. FIU’s punting the first seven games looked like performance art, if you were describing premature ejaculation via the medium of punting. I know FIU didn’t want to put its game, but injury-prone quarterback out there for any special teams psycho to obliterate. Medlock’s 45.0-yard average on four punts, two of which were downed inside the 10, should give him that job for the next little while.
As for Hilliard, I thought he had an OK game. The end zone interception, a bomb into double coverage with the score 21-13 and FIU on the East Carolina 43, was a bad decision. But he ran the ball decisively and took the passes that were there most of the time. And engineering that long drive, even if a bunch of it is on the ground, takes good quarterback leadership.
Big ups to Austin Taylor, who followed his school-record tying 52-yard field goal with the first touchback of FIU's season. It went in on the bounce, but none of FIU's previous kickoffs that reached the end zone stayed there.
The fourth and 1 from the East Carolina 20...I understand going for it. FIU was down 14-3. A touchdown on the drive makes it 14-10 and establishes the idea in both team’s minds that FIU can trade scores with East Carolina if necessary. Also, Ron Turner wants to show and instill confidence in the offense.
On the other hand, a field goal makes it a one-score game at 14-6. Also, on third and 1, FIU went straight power, overloading the right side and running Lamarq Caldwell behind the beef. The attempt to buffalo their way to a first down got stoned by the Pirates. So, on fourth and 1, FIU lined up similarly. In the press box, a scribe who covers East Carolina regularly said FIU should come back with the same play because the Pirates trend is that they’d give up the ground on the second try.
His scouting report beat FIU’s. The play action pass fooled nobody and Hilliard got chased toward the sidelines. He crossed the sideline before he threw. That showed he needs to adjust his mindset to the situation, something that showed on the second fourth quarter possession with FIU down 28-13. On both fourth downs, Hilliard had nothing to lose by just finding a receiver downfield and throwing toward him. Maybe you get a pass interference penalty. Maybe you get a catch. Maybe you get The Immaculate Reception. It’s the fourth down version of knowing when to give up on a play and throw it away on first through third down.
For the second game I covered in three days, I saw coaches outthink themselves. Or, maybe just get too into “We’re going to do what we’re going to do” instead of adjusting to the situation.
I’m re-reading John Feinstein’s Next Man Up on the year he spent with the Baltimore Ravens. When All-Pro cornerback Chris McAlister goes down against the Jets, thus bringing aging Corey Fuller off the bench, injured Deion Sanders instantly says the Jets will go after Fuller. He grabs safety Ed Reed and warns him to shade to Fuller’s side. Sure enough, the Jets attacked Fuller for some big gains.
Later that 2004 season, Denver went to Indianapolis for a playoff game. The previous year, Peyton Manning strafed the Broncos so badly, the Colts never punted in a 41-10 playoff win. Denver traded for All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey over the summer and put Bailey on Marvin Harrison in the playoff game. Manning saw Bailey on one side and rookie Roc Alexander on the other against Reggie Wayne. Manning went at Alexander, to the tune of 10 catches for 221 yards and two touchdowns for Wayne. They daggone near retired Alexander – Denver took three cornerbacks early in the next draft. Alexander never started another NFL game and played only 11 more.
Contrast that with Thursday, when Cincinnati didn’t seem to realize the Dolphins needed to use third string R.J. Stanford, a 2010 seventh-round pick of Carolina’s, at cornerback late in the game. The Bengals never threw Stanford’s way. Saturday, East Carolina seemed to take some time finding freshman Brad Hyman-Muhammad, starting in place of senior cornerback Sam Miller. Once they did, completions of 43 and 27 yards fueled the drive that put the Pirates up 21-3 in the second quarter. Then, they left Hyman-Muhammad alone for the most part.
Meanwhile, credit FIU’s defense for refusing to stay down. The Pirates were going like 60 until FIU responded with that long…long…Gunsmoke-long…march to their touchdown. The 9:20 march and halftime – after a sack by Isame Faciane and a pass breakup by Demarkus Perkins forced East Carolina to try a field goal it missed – allowed the defense to steady itself.
Perhaps the most impressive part of FIU’s defensive performance was the sacks came off coverage, not just the strength of the team, the defensive line, beating their counterparts. In fact, the pass rush did little, even those times ECU got rid of the ball quickly. Cornerback Randy Harvey credited the defensive backs with having good “eye discipline” and just staying with their receiver no matter what moves, crosses or looks they got from East Carolina’s routes.
I need to remember to ask Turner this week about this end-of-first-half silliness. With 27 seconds left, instead of just taking a knee, FIU ran Caldwell into the line for a few yards, as they did last week. I reiterate -- either you’re trying to score or you don’t run a play. Running between the tackles with your three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust back amounts to coaching masturbation that serves only to get somebody hurt. And Turner tells us weekly about how too many guys are playing too many snaps because he’s dealing with a short roster.
During an early FIU possession, I heard repeated high school-like cheers of “Take it away, dee-fense, take it away!” The clarity in the cheers sounded as if they emanated from below the press box, which is at the east end of the stadium’s south side. Why were FIU’s cheerleaders chanting for the defense? Then, I realized they were coming from the East Carolina cheerleaders down at the west end of the south side. You need a long bridge of silence to carry that little noise that far.
With the score 21-13, East Carolina’s fans drummed their feet on the stands during an FIU third down. FIU’s student section? Lounging. Forget all the other things wrong with the football program, the stadium, athletics. Your one-win team has a shot at upsetting the conference favorite and you can’t raise your voices for your fellow students? Your fellow athletes?
To quote Cartman, “Super…weak.”