The highest paid assistant coach in FIU football history earns his paycheck Saturday on The Money Pit at The Cage.
Defensive coordinator Josh Conklin, now entering his third season of coaching at the FBS level, contractually makes $200,000. And, right from jump street this season, Conklin's looking at scheming and adjusting to deal with a ground game that both pushed and Punk'd FIU for 311 yards on 52 carries. Put the sack numbers with the passing yards, as the NFL does and colleges should, too, and that's 324 yards on 50 carries, 6.48 yards per carry.
It's the same cast of characters coming from Daytona. In the backfield,there's quarterback Quentin Williams, running back Anthony Jordan and Cary White. Up front, four of five offensive line starters return, led by FCS All-American center Andrew Edouard. Last year's game was Conklin's fourth FBS game with a 4-3 defense. He ran a 4-2-5 and a 3-4 while defensive coordinator at The Citadel before spending a year with Tennessee's 3-4. I thought it showed in the lack of adjustments made. Or maybe he felt handcuffed and strapped down by his personnel.
Last year, Conklin didn't have defensive tackle Isame Faciane for the first quarter as Faciane served punishment for an unspecified violation of team rules. Now, no Faciane at all, no Greg Hickman and Edouard's still there.
(Quick digression: Faciane played in Minnesota's final preseason game. He didn't register a defensive statistic. I think he was kept around for that final preseason game, when the starters play the least, if at all, and could be headed for a practice squad. Same with cornerback Sam Miller in Buffalo, although if he's going to make it, he needs to show something on special teams. Miller made three tackles on defense, got a tackle assist on special teams.)
Edouard's not huge, 6-2, 295, but is aged by the maturity of his game. In raw bulk, any of FIU's defensive tackles match up well with him, although 6-5 Lars Koht looks more like a tall, long-limbed defensive end than a defensive tackle. If FIU's linebackers start having to fight off Edouard and his pals, to quote my former Chi-Chi's coworker Jeff, "It's going to be a long night in the gym."
Young linebackers also worry me. For this game, mind you. The expert way Bethune runs its option at speed can have inexperienced linebackers doing the electric football dance -- running in all different directions, into each other, spinning in place. Thinking long term, get the best talent out there and let it learn. Besides, you might luck into a turnover or big tackle for loss, although it's not dumb luck, it's the kind of luck that doesn't happen to those of lesser ability. Talent doesn't always have to know what it's doing to make plays.
The Wildcats averaged exactly 20 passes per game last year. They don't want to throw 20 times against FIU. If you see 20 passes from Bethune, you'll see two interceptions (at least) from FIU and a Panthers win. First down is the important down. Third down's called "The Money Down," but do a good enough job on first down, third down's easy money short yardage or you're stealing money by moving the sticks on second down. There's only so many third and longs Bethune will convert on the ground and they know it. A succession of first down stops will force the ground bound Wildcats to the air on enough second and longs that it plays to FIU's strength, the secondary.
FIU should be better on first down just out of diversity. Head coach Ron Turner said he'll remain the one calling the plays. I think if he's truly more confident in his offense, FIU won't be so predictable on first down (how many times did they NOT run Lamarq Caldwell off tackle on first down?). Domino effect -- better on first down, better on third down, longer drives, fresher defense at the end of the game.
Bethune's got a man-aged if not man-sized defense. Presumably, this year, betwen guards Jordan Budwig and Jordan White and center Donald Senat, somebody will block Wildcats defensive tackle Rony Barrow. Barrow's only 250 pounds but he was practically teleporting himself into the FIU backfield last year. I see FIU getting a push for the running game and can create a pocket for quarterback E.J. Hilliard. The line's got pride. More importantly, it's got another year of growth in the game and under the skin.
The full integration of tight end Jonnu Smith happened after last year's Bethune loss. He caught two passes for 9 yards. Expanding his role gets some first downs. Bethune's got size in the secondary, but they've got a bite size weakside linebacker in 6-1, 208 Jason Smith and not much depth across the position group. A wide receiver set with 6-4 Dominique Rhymes and 6-4 Richard Burrows on the outisde, 6-2, 200 Glenn Coleman in the slot with 6-3, 230 Smith coming from his tight end position should give Bethune 99 problems.
I see both teams moving the ball well. Lots of possessions, points. If the decisive play comes on special teams, it's FIU's night. Otherwise, I'd go with the first thing I wrote for the football special section: Bethune, 34-31.
But that's one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.