Sorry this is late. Zero caffeine Saturday.
FIU got what Wagner came for Saturday.
The Seahawks gave FIU a chance to stack some confidence blocks and game experience before FIU's got to protect those blocks from Pittsburgh and Louisville's kicks over the next two weeks. In the manner of any good sparring partner, Wagner made FIU work for the goodies. Well, except for Richard Leonard's 60-yard pick six. That was a clear case of quarterback and receiver not being on the same page. Or, being on the same page, but one's reading Pete Gent and the other's reading Dan Jenkins. Credit Leonard for reading the quarterback correctly and sitting on the pattern. Again, cheap scores. When you have a poor offense, sometimes you need Eggo waffles for dinner. That's exactly what FIU didn't get last year and the second week in a row Leonard served up points (the 71-yard punt return preceding last week's touchdown). It was FIU's first interception return for a touchdown since Johnathan Cyprien victimized Louisiana-Monroe's Kolton Browning in 2011.
Also on the menu was a tray of eight other turnovers served up by both teams, the nine tying an FIU school record set against Arkansas State in 2005, then matched against North Texas (2005) and Arkansas (2007). In the previous games, FIU played main philanthropist with their opponents just occasionally getting in on the act. Saturday, Wagner provided six turnovers, tying Florida A&M for most by an FIU opponent.
Panthers defensive end Michael Wakefield caused two fumbles, recovered another, blocked two passes and had a sack. Pretty good night's work. Freshman Shemarke Spence caused one fumble and picked off a pass. FIU's other sack came from the other starting defensvie end, defensive end Denzell Perine. Perine left the stadium on a cart in the fourth quarter. He got off the field with great difficulty despite being supported under the arms by training staffers. He allegedly was seen walking well after the game.
I forgot to ask why any of FIU's defensive starters were still in the game in the fourth quarter. They lost their zero back in the first quarter after FIU's first turnover, the punt that touched punt return blocker De'Shawn Hazziez and wound up under a dogpile. That occurred at the opposite end of the field from the press seating -- writers and sports information folks now chew air in the westernmost suite -- so I couldn't tell how well Leonard gave the "SCATTER! GET OUT OF THE WAY! INNNNNCOOOMMMMMING!" warning.
Other than a handful of passes, FIU got what it should've wanted from the defense the first two weeks. Last week, the defense sat on Bethune-Cookman enough to give the Panthers a chance to win a game in which they went one for 16 on offensive third downs. This week, they allowed only three more first downs (nine) than turnovers snagged; outscored the opposing offense 7-3; and allowed that field goal on a drive that started at their 21. Overatched opponent? Squish him. Can't ask for much more than that.
While that's what FIU coach Ron Turner wanted to see out of his defense, what he didn't want to see was the welterweight bout between FIU cornerback Randy Harvey and Wagner wide receiver Keith Foster after a fourth quarter running play. Foster beat Harvey for a 38-yard gain two plays earlier. Whether or not things began there and had been escalating or began earlier in the game, it's a late game lapse in judgement that'll cost Harvey game time.
"We will not tolerate guys throwing punches," FIU coach Ron Turner said. "That will not be tolerated here. Guys do that, they will not play. I don't care who he is. It doesn't matter if he throws the first punch, which he didn't; or if retaliate, which he did. It will not be tolerated. I can assure you of that."
Losing the backup cornerback for a half or a game next week pales in comparison to keeping your now-backup quarterback's head in the game.
Junior E.J. Hilliard came into the game with FIU up 24-3 in the second quarter. After freshman starter Alex McGough took most of the third quarter shift, Hilliard took the last 2:07 of the third and all of the fourth. Hilliard completed 14 of 15 for 169 yards. McGough completed nine of 18 for 60 yards and two touchdowns.
If Hilliard hadn't done some growing up over the last 18 months, he'd be gone. Metaphorically, if not physically. Without a matured center of mental gravity, the new system, position battles, losses on the field and, for now, loss of starting job would have him kind of just...there. (In case you were wondering, Jake Medlock went 13 of 24 for 140 yards, two touchdowns and an interception Saturday in a 38-10 win for Valdosta State over Albany State.)
Turner said "I don't see why not" when asked about continuing to play both McGough and Hilliard.
"If we have to play two quarterbacks to get the W, that's what we have to do," Hilliard said. "It was a tough situation, going into the season starting then getting demoted. But we worked so hard as a team to get to the point where we're at to let something like that break the team down. I just wanted to make sure it wasn't me that brought the morale of the team down.
"They told me I was demoted. I did everything I could to help him. Because at the end of the day, we want to win. He wants to win, I want to win, the team wants to win."
Turner said, "A tough situation. He showed his character and showed he's a team guy."
McGough said he wanted to improve his deep ball accuracy this week, but didn't feel he did it. One bomb he did drop in perfectly went to fellow freshman Dennis Turner. Drop. Darn.
Too bad because that would've rounded out the youth contributions. The aforementioned Spence. A freshman starting at quarterback and, despite freshman moments like a 15-yard sack, having a 2-0 touchdown/interception ratio. Sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith's 127 receiving yards included buffing that quarterback's stats by trucking up the left sideline 41 yards with a short pass. And, of course, freshman running back Alex Gardner's 138 rushing yards on only 15 carries, which broke down to 104 yards on four carries and 34 yards on 11 carries.
Gardner said he wanted to work on his pass blocking this week because last week it was "horrible." While possibly true, that's to be expected. Pass blocking, both technique and recognition on who to pick up, always will be the toughest thing for a running back moving up a level. If you're good enough to get to the next level, odds are you didn't have to do much pass blocking because the offense tended to run through you.
"We've got to be able to run the ball. We've got to be able to run it better than we did a week ago," Turner said. "At times, we did today and at times it wasn't as good as we would like. But, we know going in, the style of defense they play -- they do a lot of different things, a lot of pressures -- we told them, with what we have in the game plan, there are going to be some minus runs, some zero runs and there are going to be some big plays. Because that's how they play."
I didn't like the inability to shove the ball over from the 1-yard line after Gardner's 62-yard run. They got the touchdown anyway, on the rollout pass to Cory White, but you've got to be able to muscle that in on Mr. Natalie Wood. Former Dolphins tight end Jim Mandich said one of his coaches, I think, always said at some time in the game, there's going to come a point when you need to gain 1 yard and you better be able to do it.
(Pausing for a little melancholy writing Mandich's name on an NFL morning. Good man who I knew of since my single digits in age; knew as acquaintance just from working in the same market for over 20 years; but only got to know in any substantive way his last few years. And almost immediately wished I'd gotten to know him better much earlier.)
Nice to see running backs Alfonso Randolph (knee) and Anthon Samuel (transfer, head, hand) back on the field. Randolph fumbled on his only carry. Samuel got a fourth quarter touchdown by getting to the pylon on a 4-yard run. Shane Coleman didn't see the field.
Saturday's official attendance: 9,981. Yeah, it's Wagner after a disppointing home loss with the University of Miami hosting Florida A&M at the same time. Still, that means season ticket sales might be off by 3,000 or so from last year, 2,000 from two years ago. I counted only six of 17 suites sold to non-FIU entities.
That's more worrisome for FIU than Pittsburgh or Louisville. They'll at least get experience from those games.
It wasn't until afterwards, seeing the reactions of some FIU staff that I realized it's been since the second game of the 2012 season that FIU experienced happiness at home. It's nice for everyone to experience a little "ahhhh."