Women's soccer -- Sunday vs. Louisiana Tech, 1 p.m.
Swimming & Diving -- Friday vs. Rice, 4 p.m.
Swimming & Diving -- Saturday vs. FAU, 10 a.m.
Swimming & Diving -- Saturday vs. University of Miami, 4 p.m.
Before we get started on football, a raised glass to the simultaneous wins at Camp Mitch Friday night. Women's soccer took down Southern Mississippi, 1-0, to move to 7-7, but more importantly, 3-2 in Conference USA. Volleyball swept Charlotte 3-0 and now sit at 11-7, 5-2.
Men's soccer goes to UAB today as it continues the death march through Conference USA (or ACC 2).
FIU football is sick. Disappointing losses at La Tech and UMass, marked by undue crankiness, left their temperature under .500. Look at the medical report that never seems to get shorter. Look at the standings that say a loss today puts them two games behind Marshall and the Middle Tennessee State-Western Kentucky winner in CUSA East with all three of those teams left on the schedule, two on the road. And it means FIU will have to win one of those three games just to get bowl eligible.
This is when some senior citizen female in your family gets in (pick one) her Lincoln Crown Vic/her beige Toyota Camry/the 27 bus to roll up to your house, shuffle quickly in and pour a bucket of chicken soup (or gumbo) down your throat. For ailing FIU, the schedule makers play the role of Big Mama.
They brought the Panthers UTEP, chicken soup for the FIU football team's soul.
What more could FIU want? FIU's got injuries. The Miners have more -- 10 guys out for the season. A team that wants to be ground bound lost starting tailback Aaron Jones. His backup, Darrin Laufasa, had but a single carry in the 25-6 loss to UTSA. Laufasa might be able to play. Starting linebacker Alvin Jones won't. Nor will his backup, Stephen Forester. Jones' importance is such that the UTEP folks tried to create a hastag for him (#JuggernautJones). Cornerback Kelvin Fisher's out, too. If I missed your name, I'm sorry. Write-in and I'll include you when I talk about UTEP next year.
Oh, and trying to run the offense amidst this carnage in his sixth college game and third start is redshirt freshman Ryan Metz. A redshirt freshman in his third start shouldn't look like Jameis Winston (without the crab legs) against FIU's defense.
(Quick digression: FIU announced its game captains this week. For the first time, they didn't include senior defensive end Michael Wakefield: graduate transfer senior linebacker Jephete Matilus, fifth-year senior Richard Leonard, sophomore quarterback Alex McGough, redshirt junior center Michael Montero.)
FIU's pass coverage often looks discombobulated from the all the injuries and switching that needs to be done. UTEP acts like throwing the football's a sin. FIU stuffs the run. UTEP likes to run inside.
UTEP's 19th nationally in time of possession, yet 119th in team passing efficiency defense and 123rd in pass defense. Translation: the Miners give up the yardage on big plays.
So, FIU, pull those flys, streaks and deep posts out from under last year's tube socks and draws, blow off the dust and see what looks like it'll still play. Wide receivers Shawn Abrams and Juwan Caesar might play. Considering UTEP gives up 5.2 yards per rush, FIU should be able to establish a running game to set up downfield plays off play action, thus preventing the EZ Pass lane access UMass' pass rush got last week.
And FIU's favored by two touchdowns.
So you see how this sets up, right?
No, no, there looks like plenty of soup for everyone. Enough for soup to be a meal. The buffet should be open.
I say FIU eats 31-13.
But that's one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.
Saddleback Junior College long-snapper Jared Nash has committed to FIU as a preferred walk-on.
Women's soccer -- Friday vs. Southern Miss, 7 p.m.
Volleyball -- Friday vs. Charlotte, 7 p.m.
Football -- Saturday vs. UTEP, noon
Women's soccer -- Sunday vs. Louisiana Tech, 1 p.m. (Soccer scarves for the first 50 Res Life students).
One big advantage of Conference USA over the Fun Belt -- CUSA's a tremendous bowl slut, hooking up with lower rung bowls, helping create new bowls and generally making sure there's a plethora of bowl beds for its teams to lay their heads come December. I think they're related to every bowl under Rose and above American Standard.
Seven primary bowl tie-ins this year (Heart of Dallaskeep most member team's fans tractable even after a conference title drops from the List of Possibilities. So, I'm expanding the weekly Top Six to the Select Seven.
1. Western Kentucky (4-1, 2-0 in Conference USA) -- Wilt Chamberlain, CUSA team version. Imagine how they'd be scoring if they hadn't lost 1,500-yard rusher Leon Allen. Home this week against Middle Tennessee State. Take the Over.
2. Louisiana Tech (3-2, 1-1) -- Running back Kenneth Dixon got tossed from last week's win against Louisiana-Lafayette, but he'll play at Texas-San Antonio.
3. Marshall (4-1, 1-0) -- Only two receivers over 11 yards per reception. That' means they need to get their chunk yardage from the big chunk of a running back, Devon Johnson. They do.
4. Middle Tennessee State (2-3, 1-0) -- After close losses to Illinois (who looks better than usual this year) and Vanderbilt, seeing visit to Western this weekend reminds me of the old Bernie Mac line "I ain't scared of you!" If Middle loses, next week's home game against FIU becomes an elimination game as far as the conference title.
5. Southern Miss (3-2, 1-0) -- A strange team. Got taken to the brink by Texas State, then they took Nebraska to the brink (although this is lesser Nebraska to the point it's almost NCIS: Lincoln.). Friday night at Marshall should test junior quarterback Nate Mullens.
6. Rice (2-3, 1-1) -- Love each conference's smarty pants private school rising up to tweak the schools who never have to worry about players making it into school.
7. FIU (2-3, 0-1) -- After FIU's 7 personal fouls or unsportsmanike conduct penalties over the last two games, UTEP should be practicing "Yo, Mama" snaps for dropping on Panthers at the key moment to draw a retaliation penalty ("Man, yo' mama's so ugly, I told her to wait for your sister outside.").
There's not much that'll help the crowd for a noon game against UTEP after two losses. So, FIU's making a measured raffle-focused effort at the student attendance after getting enough tickets distributed for the home opener.
Students entering the game at Gate 5 or 6 before halftime will get a raffle ticket with the chance of winning $1,000 tuition. The winning numbers will be shown on the video throughout the game and you have to be in the house when your number comes up to win. Also, there's a jersey giveaway at the end of the third quarter on the Panther Beach Party Deck, right up there near the drive-in projection booth that houses each school's radio team.
(Quick aside: Old Dominion put some new suites on the end of a 75-year-old stadium. It works. UMass put a new football facility and press box on a 50-year-old stadium. Nice try.)
Also, you can start buying tickets to win this ball, autographed by the whole team and coaching staff.
The winning number will be announced during the second half of the Homecoming Game, Oct. 24, vs. Old Dominion.
I've got several things to write in story or column form, so here's a few things from Tuesday's practice:
*Upon further review, FIU football coach Ron Turner had a problem with only one of the penalties called on the Panthers by the Conference USA crew Saturday at UMass. Turner didn't have to say it was the late hit call on middle linebacker Jephete Matilus.
*Wide receiver Dennis Turner didn't practice with a mild concussion, but is expected to play Saturday against UTEP.
*Jonnu Smith admitted he was "70 to 75 percent" Saturday but was out of the orange jerseys Tuesday. Of the injured safeties, Niko Gonzalez is the closest to coming back.
What happens when you put away your bombs just because the defense says it won't let you drop them?
Sophomore quarterback Alex McGough completes 24.4 passes per game, 13th nationally. His completion percentage, 64.6, is 36th. FIU's team yards per completion? A mere 9.3, 127th out of 127. Scoring offense, 21.4 (113th) and total offense, 356.6 yards per game (99th).
Not getting it done.
La Tech's Skip Holtz, like his old man and most other college coaches since Bear Bryant, knows how to either poormouth his own team or make the next opponent sound like 2004 Southern Cal. But in possibly buttering up Texas-San Antonio, he threw some kind words toward FIU's Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine:
"I think they (UTSA) are the best defensive football team we've played to this point. They definitely have the best front four. I thought Kansas State had the best interior players. I thought FIU had the best defensive ends."
After a weekend sweep of Marshall and UTEP, 10-6 FIU sits at 4-2 in conference play, sixth in the standings. You say "big deal" but after missing the CUSA tournament last year, yeah, it's kind of a big thumbs up so far.
For what it's worth, FIU's RPI ranks 168th in the nation.
We need Pigmeat Markham's The Judge up here to talk about the weenie roast of a mess this season's turning into for FIU. ("I'm sentencing from The Book of Years...and I'm starting on the last page."). Who wants it first? Everybody needs to step up and get some.
First, some reality before we get into the ripping. FIU would've been hard-pressed to stop UMass at full strength. An offense that put up 30 points per game when it had its quarterback last year returned more starters just on that side of the ball than Central Florida did on both.
FIU was down players at each defensive level. Starting defensive tackle Darrian Dyson got left home in a disciplinary measure. Starting middle linebacker Treyvon Williams has a knee injury. Safeties Wilkenson Myrtil and Niko Gonzalez remain out and, let's remember, they inherited their starting spots from Shemarke Spence's injury and Jordan Davis' academic problems. Then, redshirt junior Deonte Wilson got left home in a disciplinary move. FIU decided to play the better player, cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon, out of position at safety and bump up backup corner Mark Bruno. Not sure moving Bruno would've worked any better.
So you've got a complex offense with a two-year starting senior quarterback directing a well-versed side against a simplified defense with a senior-aged, freshman-game experienced middle linebacker directing a banged up side.
Maybe not Chess vs. Checkers. Chess vs. Dominoes? I'm not surprised UMass put up 495 yards. I am surprised those turned into only 24 points.
As far as talent, South Florida owns neither a monopoly on it nor does every kid want to stay within a bus ride of the maternal teat. Many just want to go somewhere they can play. Which is how UMass gets players like quarterback Blake Frohnapfel (transfer from Marshall), wide receiver Taj Sharpe (Piscataway, NJ), wide receiver Marken Michel (Plantation American Heritage High) and running back Jamal Wilson (Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas) in addition to some home state talent.
Bill Belichick would have trouble scheming his way out of the defense's situation. FIU's defensive approach looked vanilla, but if you're dealing with limited experience in production, you don't try for Cookies 'n' Cream. After a predictable half of "Which way did he go? Which way did he go?" and 334 yards of offense, FIU got UMass figured out a little better in the last 30 minutes. Of course, if UMass coach Mark Whipple hadn't kept choking on his own smarts in the first half, the Panthers might've been down 30 and played the second half with freshmen.
Offensive coaches who run sophisticated attacks love to show everybody how smart they are. They don't just want to score. They want to score and have you think, "Totally outsmarted and outcoached the other guy. They weren't ready for that. That so runs against the norm, what you think they'd do." That eventually slips into "Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius" mode and they overthink themselves. Such as when UMass got first and goal from the 3 and ran Wilson into the line for 1...then Wilson for a loss of 1...then got a chintzy pass interference call on Richard Leonard, first and goal on the 2, so then went with...Wilson for 1...Wilson for 0...then Marquis Young for a loss of 1 on a pitch play.
The whole time, you could hear that part of Whipple's brain going, "Hah! After all the end arounds and fakes, they'll never suspect a simple buck into the line! After I did it once, they'll never suspect it again! And again! And again! OK, let's run a pitch play against the faster defense on third and 1!"
Sort of like on FIU's lone touch for freshman Anthony Jones, I wondered who was thinking, "We'll cross them up on third and 5 by running a motion sweep with the fast guy to the short side of the field! It's so against what anyone thinking normally would do!"
That's about as imaginative as the offense got.
I have no doubt Ron Turner's postgame explosion, especially after last week's rant about discipline, was heartfelt. I also know that, like Dennis Green's more calculated "they are who we thought they were" postgame rant, it pushed some focus away from offensive strategic coaching failures. (Also, though any parent can tell you there's only so much you can truly control 50 guys old enough to vote, the buck on team discipline eventually stops at the coach's desk. One week is a bad game. Two weeks is a bad tendency. Three weeks is a bad problem.)
Back to the offense, which couldn't have been more bereft of creativity if stolen from a website selling C+ essays. Useful creativity, that is. Passing passed for creativity in the first half. The simple act, not anything about FIU's approach. FIU opened with a bubble screen to a clearly hobbled Jonnu Smith. I thought I heard hearty Falstaffian laughter among the New England trees as Smith was brought down for a loss of 2. Four of FIU's first five plays were predictable throws. The lone run was a 6-yard inside job by Alex Gardner. When FIU committed to a balanced attack in the second half, they ran the ball well enough and had their one good drive of the day.
Also, on those first two drives, McGough got lucky again. Either a miscommunication, misread by he or the receiver or something led to a throw that smacked linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox in the torso with nothing but teammates, green and glory in front him. Dropped it.
FIU pushed the ball downfield once all day, a sprint out to the left that hit fifth-year Clinton Taylor on his "5" before plopping to the ground. That was the sixth offensive play. Other than that metaphor for the South Florida wide receivers left from the previous regime, FIU let themselves be compacted for the second consecutive week.
Turner said La Tech set up last week to take away the bomb every time FIU had one called and complimented McGough for not throwing into the defense. I agree -- to a point. Using the defensive coverage as an excuse for the complete abandonment of the long ball is too Beta male for football. Sometimes, you've got to be gangster about it. Say "We don't care what you're giving us, we're taking what we want on this play." Maybe you get a pass interference call. Maybe you get a great play. Maybe you just keep it in the defenses mind that they can't dictate to you.
FIU inserted 6-4 Shawn Abrams in the third quarter. Abrams' initial target in college football was a quick slant on third down to keep the drive alive. They couldn't put him in earlier and ask him to run deep, jump high and see what happens?
Of course, maybe "protection issues" weighed on FIU play-calling minds. To the Minutemen, the Mass Turnpike ran through FIU's line with the right side being the fast lane. McGough got sacked three times. While there were no official "hurries," that's more on the stat crew. McGough got pressured. He wound up with 11 runs, a number that includes the three sacks and his scrambles.
I'm wondering if Anthon Samuel's OK. Gardner's the better all-around back, but there's never a change of pace or philosophy. Not to mention, he never gets a rest. (Yeah, I know, FIU doesn't stay on the field long enough for him to need a rest. Stop..).
For all the grumbling about the officiating, it was a Conference USA crew that delivered an inscrutable afternoon of calls and non-calls. Harrumphing about poor officiating after Saturday epitomizes noting the speck in someone else's eye while ignoring the log in yours.
The last two weeks demonstrated whole team failure. FIU's favored by 14 next Saturday against UTEP. They still have Old Dominion and Charlotte at home. There's still so much out there for the Panthers. Do they have the coaching, maturity and leadership to go get it?
FIU defensive coordinator Matt House's game face Saturday better be Brainiac 5 minus the green. Because the guy doing the thinking for the offense on the UMass side, Mark Whipple? He'll be looking to be a chunky Lex Luthor against the Panthers defense.
Or, I should say Princess Projectra with a whistle. Whipple's offense can give opponents a lot to look at, but little to see that they can fully trust. An illusion here, a truth there. "Believe half of what you see, son and none of what you hear..."
Coaches love to talk about "eye discipline" on defense. Young players usually have trouble with anything associated with discipline. FIU's got young (in game experience) safeties if Jordan Davis misses another week. Graduate senior transfer Jephete Matilus will replace junior Treyvon Williams at middle linebacker, but Matilus is young in college football terms, too. He's played less college-affiliated football, 17 games, than Williams and most of that was entirely on special teams. There's no question Matilus knows what he's supposed to do if asked. At game speed, will he know fast enough to do what he's supposed to do?
And as House simplifies the defense to accommodate his newbies, how much simpler does that make it for UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel, wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, running back Marquis Young and their offensive line?
These aren't light questions. FIU's from the better conference and a better recruiting area, although UMass does have enough Florida kids to run a decent Ponzi scheme. But Conference USA's not that much better than the Mid-America Conference and the Panthers aren't that much more talented that they can pooh-pooh any such concerns.
On the other side of the ball, I see FIU being able to attack between the tackles, thus setting up play action passes. Whether off play action or straight drop, FIU's got to vary their passes better in the third and fourth quarters. Defensive backs have been get-a-room close on FIU's wide receivers when they're not trying to jump the route later in the game.
Funny enough, when I ran McGough's numbers from FIU's three games against FBS opponents through the ratings calculator and took out the garbage time touchdown drive from last week that just let FIU beat the spread. I came out with 130.7 for the first half and 121.5 for the second.
Saturday morning in New England looks like every afternoon in the original England. Whether or not today's in the wet, FIU should stick the ball into a running back's gut -- I've got no problem with how Alex Gardner's playing, but I'm not sure why they're not giving Samuel some more time -- as long as they can. The Minutemen come in MinuteBoy size in the defensive front seven. UMass brings little mass.
Holding Temple to 67 yards in 37 carries looks great on UMass' resume. Temple running backs ran for 76 yards on 27 carries, usually given the ball as an afterthought. Those Owls traveled by air that day -- 48 passes and did so often as a primary option from looking at the play-by-play. I haven't seen the game film, so I don't know if UMass schemed to take away the Temple running game, which averages 159.3 yards per game. If so, good job by them. La Tech schemed to take away FIU's deep game and make the Panthers work for points. It worked because La Tech got the better of it up front and on the edges in the one-on-one blocking battles.
Usually you anticipate turnovers with rain and I'm sure some New England media as well as the TV folks will make a point of the Florida team playing in 50-degree weather. But last year's rainy night win over FAU produced turnovers by FAU. The Panthers lost only one. The Old Dominion loss occurred in a late afternoon-early evening November chill and the Panthers lost a fumble and an interception, neither of which were related to the weather. And they scored 35 points. Unless this game finds itself in one of Hurricane Joaquin's outer bands, don't expect a great weather effect.
Opponents average 10.2 yards per punt return on UMass. FIU's problem could be getting UMass to punt.
I see UMass scoring. I don't see them sucking up clock, however, or sitting on the ball well. So FIU's going to have every chance to win a game with a lot of points. I have no idea what's going on with the lines and the totals. That six-point swing in the first 24 hours, from FIU by 3 to UMass by 3, caught attention up here, too. A 56-point Over/Under looks low.
Just like FIU's last two games against FBS opponents, I'd stay away from this if I was in a sportsbook or just make a fun bet with drink money. I'll stay with my preseason pick: FIU 38, UMass 31.
That's just one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.
Volleyball -- Tuesday vs. Florida Gulf Coast, 7 p.m.
Neither linebacker Treyvon Williams or offensive lineman Trenton Saunders lost their walking stick sets Wednesday. Ron Turner still called them "possible" for Saturday's game against UMass.
I'm calling "Coachspeak." Turner's playing the same game the Dolphins did last week when they kept listing offensive tackle Branden Albert as "Doubtful" even as he couldn't practice all week. They're out. Why would you risk playing your starting middle linebacker and a starting guard in a non-conference game at anything less than 100 percent when your stated goal is to win Conference USA and you're only one game into your conference season?
Wide receivers Shawn Abrams and Juwan Caesar will be available Saturday, adding height and speed to the receiving corps. I asked Turner about the lack of deep shots taken Saturday. He said some were called, but Louisiana Tech sat in the right defense for them. He credited sophomore quarterback Alex McGough for checking out of those plays and not forcing the issue.
"I think they were determined to not give us big plays," he said.
Now to my Conference USA Not-So-Secret Six
1. Western Kentucky (3-1, 1-0 in Conference USA) -- Swashbuckling along, Western brings the most unstoppable offense into Rice Stadium since Larry Csonka trampled Minnesota in Super Bowl VIII. Bob Griese threw seven passes that day. Western's Brad Doughty might throw that on his first drive.
2. Louisiana Tech (2-2, 1-1 in conference) -- Yeah, the Bulldogs couldn't put away a reeling FIU team until late. Still, Tech can run the ball, play run defense and quarterback Jeff Driskel refuses to turn the ball over. That's most football coaches' version of a hot stone massage.
3. Marshall (3-1, 0-0) -- Needed OT to unplug Kent State's MACtion. The Herd's top three rushers average 6.6, 5.6 and 5.7 yards per carry. So, Michael Birdsong and Chase Litton have simple jobs: don't fumble the snap or the handoff, don't throw the ball to Not-Marshall's jersey.
4. Middle Tennessee State (2-2, 1-0) -- That late failure in a two-point loss to Illinois confirmed that Conference USA's competitive with the Big Ten...if you took the top of C-USA and matched them against the Big Ten's backseat little brothers.
5. Southern Miss (2-2, 0-0) -- Then again, Nebraska's not a backseat Big Ten team (at least not permanently) and Southern Miss played the Cornhuskers tight in a 36-28 loss. Junior quarterback Nick Mullins has 10 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
6. Rice (2-2, 1-0) -- Baylor's good. But giving up 70, like some FCS paid whipping boy? Be better.
Junior starting middle linebacker Treyvon Williams limped off the field on crutches with right knee raised. Redshirt junior guard Trenton Saunders came off on crutches, also. Redshirt junior safety Jordan Davis sported the Home Depot-colored injury jersey.
Yet, FIU coach Ron Turner called Williams and Saunders "day-to-day" with the possibility of playing at UMass Saturday and said of Davis "I think he's got a good chance."
Williams left the fourth quarter of Saturday's loss at Louisiana Tech moving gingerly. Of the starting linebackers for the opener, the Panthers already FIU lost senior outside linebacker Davison Colimon for the season to a torn pectoral muscle. Fifth-year graduate transfer from the University of Minnesota, Jephete Matilus, would move to Williams' spot. According to the participation pages of the official gamebooks, Matilus hasn't played a snap yet this year.
Junior tight end Jonnu Smith also sported injury orange, but with uniform pants. Smith suffered a thigh contusion. I was wondering if a couple of days off would give that time to heal or if it would get worse before it got better.
Wide receiver Juwan Caesar definitely should be ready to go. Shawn Abrams is a possibility.
I wonder who else knew about Williams injury and when they knew it.
The betting line for Saturday's game at 0-4 UMass opened with FIU a 3.5-point favorite, dropped to Pick 'Em about as quickly as I just typed that and was at UMass by 3 to 3.5 by Monday morning. That's a huge swing for a week. For 24 hours, that's SkyLab. That means beaucoup bucks got dropped on UMass. The folks who get down on the mid-major games tend to be the serious handicappers who keep the feelers out everywhere.
FIU and UMass opened with FIU a 3.5-point favorite for next Saturday's football game in Amherst, but swung to Pick 'Em by Sunday night and is now UMass by 3.5.
So FIU's played at its mid-state parallel as far as campus, size, etc (Central Florida); in the quintessential Middle America college town (Bloomington); a textbook Southern town/region crazy about its mid-major college (Shreveport-Ruston); and now go to the quintessential New England college town (Amherst).
The remaining trips are to Murfreesboro (read: Nashville until time to go to the game) and Huntington, West Virginia (college town in the sticks).
Good weekend for Thomas Chestnutt's team, taking out travel partners Texas-San Antonio and UTEP, the latter on a last minute goal by senior Scarlet Montoya. FIU's 6-5, 2-0 in Conference USA with Rice and North Texas coming next weekend.
The first time I watched "The Dukes of Hazzard" was the first time I heard the saying "You ever have one of those days when you feel like you couldn't hit the ground with your hat?"
It broke me out of a Daisy Duke stupor (at 11, I was lucky I didn't faint) and cracked me up through the commercial break. Of course you've had that day. We all have. You forget to do basic tasks. Things at which you're expert you bungle. Everything you say leads either the wrong way or to a fight. At some point in the afternoon, we feel like whipping out the sign The Coyote (Eatius Birdius) does as he falls off a cliff at the end of "Gee Whiz-z-z-z-z-z-z:" How About Ending This Cartoon Before I Hit?
FIU had such a day Saturday.
FIU looked ready to play. Well, if Louisiana Tech were Florida Tech. You’re not properly ready to work when you follow a false start penalty with a delay of game on the first snap of a possession, as FIU did down 17-10 after a missed La Tech field goal. The pre-snap penalties and all the “darn, I missed that” post-play single claps from FIU players reminded me of covering the 4-12 2004 Dolphins, the bus that drove Dave Wannstedt out of town fueled by a steady flow of false starts and running backs getting overrun a second after the handoff.
When NFL players aren’t ready to play, almost all of that is on them. They’re grown men earning the money that’ll support themselves, their money (and, too often, too many others). Young college men, some closer to prom than life without Spring Break? The coaching staff bears significant responsibility. Spread blame for Saturday’s failure like Nutella.
Also, keep it in perspective. Louisiana Tech’s a very good football team, possibly Conference USA’s most complete team, and should be. They’re a well-established mid-major program that long ago carved out its place in one of the country’s most talent thick areas. For all the swagger South Florida residents like to have about the region’s football talent – and Miami and Fort Lauderdale are Nos. 1 and 2 among municipalities in NFL player native cities -- Louisiana’s No. 2 behind Alabama in per capita NFL player production. Skip Holtz and Ron Turner are each in his third seasons at La Tech and FIU. Holtz got hired a month earlier than Turner did, took over less of a mess and had greater connection to that region.
Anyway, all La Tech needed coming into this season was a quarterback and Florida graduate transfer Jeff Driskel dropped into Holtz’s lap. Driskel’s no Terry Bradshaw (a Shreveport native who actually committed elsewhere before getting bullied by local sentiment into attending La Tech), but he’s got a senior’s sense of how to run an offense and where to go with the ball. He didn’t always pick on FIU’s green defensive backs – the third and 10 conversion before Dixon’s 63-yard touchdown run came against senior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon – and he picked the proper times to run.
Driskel and La Tech won first down all day. Let me restate: Driskel, wide receivers Trent Taylor, Carlos Henderson and Kam McKnight won first down all day. The wide receivers blocking made the bubble screens work and turned nice runs into big ones.The inability to hold blocks on the bubble screen has turned several potential big FIU plays this season into next-down-and-long.
Tech's Kenneth Dixon ran for 169, but Jarred Craft ran for 43 on only seven carries. Tech's Real Rushing totals, taking out the sack and the kneeldowns, were 259 yards on 38 carries, 6.8 a pop.
FIU just got manhandled up the middle, ruining so much of what the Panthers wanted to do in the running game. Tech Defensive tackle Aaron Brown made four solo tackles, six total, one for a loss. Tech defensive tackle Vernon Butler, two solo tackles, four total, a shared tackle for loss. When D-tackles have those kinds of numbers against you, you’re not running the ball well because that doesn’t take into account the plays they’re going their job by taking up blockers. Does any Panther other than the ball carriers he tackled recognize Bulldog linebacker Beau Fitte? Not many with the job of blocking somebody made his acquaintance on the field.
In contrast, check out FIU’s defensive tackles. FIU’s Lars Koht had five total tackles, four solo and a sack, but was invisible until the second half. When Ron Turner talked about undisciplined play, getting involved in foolishness instead of doing your job, I thought of defensive tackle Darrian Dyson – one assisted tackle, one blocked pass, one unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. And Imarjaye Albury’s statistics bring to mind the voice of Dean Wormer…”Mr. Albury…zero…point…zero.”
That doesn’t mean there weren’t plays where they did their jobs. Just showing a contrast of up the middle dominance vs. middle meh (at best).
Until I look at the game replay and see otherwise, I’m going to assume sophomore quarterback Alex McGough made the correct option reads. He never kept the ball on any of the options. There just wasn’t anything there for FIU – 53 Real Rushing yards in 22 runs, 2.41 per carry.
For the first time this season, FIU didn’t commit any turnovers. Before anybody gets a cookie for that, consider that La Tech dropped at least two interceptions they could’ve run to the nearest Popeye’s. Both were on throws as easily anticipated as the pass that North Carolina Central turned into a Pick Six last week. Coaches want to drill concrete keys into players. But on an intuitive level, you watch enough of a team, live, on television, on film, and you can get in tune with its offensive rhythms. And FIU’s rhythms run true to form. You can feel that three-step slant or stop-and-turn coming the way your ear knows the last three notes of Linus and Lucy's riff.
Pump-and-go? Sluggo (slant-and-go) route? Without some occasional changeup, teams will start jumping those routes even more and McGough will get A.J. Feeley-ed fast (speaking of the 2004 Dolphins).
For it all, FIU didn't get totally blown off the field on a day they didn't play well and were without tight end Jonnu Smith for almost half the game. What happens on your bad days says as much about your quality as what happens on your good days.
And the Panthers had a very bad day Saturday. On to Amherst, Mass.
Before we get to the ball-and-butt kickers that have been the nationally-ranked men's soccer team, here's a couple of quick hits.
Freshman safety Tyree Johnson proudly announced via Twitter that he's making his first collegiate start today against Louisiana Tech.
Video coordinator Brian Duval's on this trip. Also let's hope unlike the last road game and last week's home game, the ESPN1210 radio broadcast team of Mike Levine and Wesley Carroll will be able to analyze the game at halftime. The last two weeks, they've been forced to spend halftime talking to a stream of Burger King executives, suite buyers and other assorted FIU hangers-on who have nothing to say about the game being broadcast.
Pregnancy is the reason last year's Conference USA Freshman of the Year Kiandre'a Pound will miss this season. Pound and her boyfriend, junior football safety Wilkenson Myrtil, found out three weeks ago that she's in the family way.
Looking on the on-court upside, a very good player doesn't use up a year of eligibility during the transition year that usually follows a coaching change.
The five-game win streak No. 24 FIU takes into today's match with Marshall has its roots in the two-game losing streak against soccer royalty North Carolina and Wake Forest that opened the season.
"When you play Chapel Hill and Wake Forest, you have to defend well," FIU coach Scott Calabrese said. "You have to defend from your forwards, your midfield, back and you have to get good play from your goalkeeper. The biggest change this season is all 11 players on the field was committed to working hard to defend. That's reflected in the goals against, but also the goals scored because we tend to win the ball higher in the field."
The Panthers' team effort is such that when I asked Calabrese for who he'd call standout players aside from the obvious -- defender Marvin Hezel, leading goal scorers Luis Betancur and Daniel Gonzalez -- he couldn't. He pointed out FIU's had 10 different goal scorers and "all 11 are defending."
Clearly, he's happy with where the team is seven games into his second season at FIU.
"The goal for our teams as coaches was to try to create a positive environment where players were committed to each other and committed to high standards," he said. "I seen the players have committed themselves to things on and off the field."
Sitting in a Shreveport hotel, heavily caffeinated by a double espresso and well chocolated by a Kit-Kat and genes, racing the sugar crash that'll take me to tomorrow morning, my mind's eye keeps giving the up-and-down to this idea slinking to and from:
There might not be a lot of points scored today.
I know what the headline says over the advance story I wrote on today's FIU's Conference USA opener, at Louisiana Tech (by the way, leaving Jonesboro, Arkansas behind in the Sun Belt and getting this part of Louisiana in Conference USA is pretty much a Waffle House-for-Waffle House trade.). I also know the second paragraph and the last two paragraphs of the story broach the idea that while both offenses no longer need to bear "Instant Narcolepsy" warnings, each might not be as good as the numbers built on situation and opponent.
For example, of the 64 points scored against FIU, the opposing defense accounted for 14 and turnovers gifting very short fields counted for another 20. And when I saw Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon doing a Cab Calloway, scatting and scooting for 168 yards and 7.6 per carry on Western Kentucky, I was reminded, "So good, so cool to watch...but not the kind of back who usually does it to death on FIU." The Panthers usually get done in by the truck, not the Trans-Am, The Snowman, not The Bandit.
Also, that's a relatively young offensive line for the Bulldogs.
FIU gets a net gain in experience at safety with both Wilkenson Myrtil (congratulate him on his pending fatherhood -- more on that in another post) and Niko Gonzalez out but former starter Jordan Davis in with either freshman Tyree Johnson and redshirt sophomore Xavier Hines. That adds difficulty to the task when Bulldogs quarterback Jeff Driskel wants to attack FIU's youth (in playing time) at safety. With or without wide receiver Paul Turner to draw attention, expect Driskel-to-slot receiver Trent Taylor to do some damage. But enough and without an interception or two?
When the Panthers get the ball, they'd be happy with starting drives east of Dallas. The implied punter competition between freshman Stone Wilson and redshirt junior Chris Ayers added length and consistency to Ayers boots. The field gets flipped back in punt returns on which Richard Leonard gets little help and teams clearly have practiced disciplined pursuit of him.
LA Tech's secondary got strafed by Western Kentucky. So what? That's like one of those Geico commercials -- it's what Western does. FIU should like the matchup of 6-1 wide receiver Thomas Owens against a secondary that says Skip Holtz has overturned every toadstool in a search for talent -- only one player 6-feet or over. Let's see how many jump balls quarterback Alex McGough throws up deep to see if Owens can pull down the offensive rebound.
FIU coach Ron Turner worried about LA Tech's massive interior line. He should. Last week, North Carolina Central sold out to stop the run and it did for a half. Tech doesn't need to do that with 5-11, 354-pound fifth-year senior Tyler Porter, 6-4, 316-pound Vernon Butler and Courtney Wallace, 6-2, 336, whom they can rotate as necessary. Also, the Bulldogs occasionally get the luck of all-conference defensive end Vontarrius Dora going against redshirt freshman right tackle DaQuane Wilkie.
I can see them overwhelming the Panthers just as I can see the Panthers running a lot of trap-like stuff on them to get them flummoxed. Or running some plays together to see if those man mountains need more than a mustard seed of faith to keep a-going.
Long game in the middle of a steamy Saturday afternoon. Let's see who cramps first.
Maybe I'm overthinking this and both teams will run so many plays, they can't help but put up points. Eventually, somebody jukes a defender, a defender slips, somebody snags a remarkable catch that would be an all-time college football highlight if it occurred in a Power 5 conference game. The last time I changed analysis, I also changed the pick and took FIU over Indiana.
No change on the pick. I'll still take the home team with the more experienced quarterback with those elements being the difference in a defensive struggle that includes some score-producing turnovers.
LA Tech 27, FIU 20.s
But, that's one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.
No, COZI TV isn't the Netflix-and-Chill channel. It's an arm of WTVJ-Channel 6 that's Channel 216 on Comcast, 650 on Atlantic Broadband, 578 on AT&T U-Verse, 82 on Dish Network and 31 for those of you brontosauruses who access TV free and over the air.
These facts gained relevance to FIU football fans when WTVJ announced COZI TV would carry the Oct. 10 UTEP vs. FIU game at noon; FIU at FAU, 3:30 on Halloween; and the Nov. 7 Charlotte at FIU noon game.
Women's soccer -- Friday vs. Texas-San Antonio, 7 p.m.
Men's soccer -- Saturday vs. Marshall, 7 p.m.
Women's soccer -- Sunday vs. UTEP 1 p.m.
Sophomore safety Niko Gonzalez suffered a stinger against North Carolina-Central. He's officially day-to-day. With Wilkenson Myrtil's concussion, that moves Jordan Davis, freshman Tyree Johnson and redshirt sophomore Xavier Hines into the safety spots.
Louisiana Tech's going for a Red Out at Joe Aillet Stadium, so they'll be wearing red pants with red tops (Suge Knight would be so proud...). FIU will wear all white with gold numbers, gold facemasks and gold cleats. The gold facemasks won't be permanent, according to Ron Turner. The gold cleats will stay.
The start of FIU's Conference USA play means the start of our weekly CUSA Top 6. Why a Top 6? Because I didn't want to do a Top 7. Why not a Top 5? Too mundane.
1. Western Kentucky (2-1, 1-0 in Conference USA): CUSA's rock stars -- fun to watch, score like it's prom night and know how to live on the edge (combined margin of victory/defeat last five games: 10 points.).
2. Louisiana Tech (1-2, 0-1): Lost to Western by three, took Kansas State to triple overtime and look more balanced offensively than when their attack listed totally toward running back Kenneth Dixon.
3. Marshall (2-1, 0-0): They still have Big Boy (running back Devon Johnson) but haven't replaced The Man (Rakeem Cato).
4. Rice (2-1, 1-0): David Bailiff doesn't get enough credit for making this program respectable again.
5. FIU (2-1, 0-0): Now that Central Florida's gone retro -- as in back to FCS level of play -- we still don't know how good the Panthers are. This week's a mark on the wall for how tall they stand in CUSA
6. Middle Tennessee State (2-1, 1-0): I almost put Southern Miss here. Middle put up 70 each on the two non-Alabama schools among its first three opponents. Take the Over in two weeks when Middle plays Western.
Junior middle linebacker Treyvon Williams and sophomore safety Niko Gonzalez were in the Home Depot injury jerseys Tuesday. Not sure how serious either injury is. I'd wager anything short of hollow-point bullet wound means Williams and will be staring Louisiana Tech quarterback Jeff Driskel and running back Kenneth Dixon in the eyes across the line Saturday.
Speaking of wager, a 14 to 14 1/2-point spread on this game for LaTech looks Orca fat and apparently the early bettors are buying it/not buying it in equal measures. The line has remained as still as a Buckingham Palace guard. The Over/Under opened at 62 and now is down in the 56 or 57 area. Tough call there.
The questions after FIU eventually put away FCS victim North Carolina Central concerned junior safety Wilkenson Myrtil, who left a quiet FIU Stadium on a stretcher, arms strapped to his sides after a collision with a teammate left him knocked out.
FIU coaches were told Myrtil suffered a concussion on the play. He had movement in his limbs. That's a relief to hear. At least quarterback Alex McGough moved last week after he took a head shot. Myrtil lay still. If you're of a certain age, every time you see that, Mark Buoniconti comes to mind. the son of Dolphins Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti's last college football tackle stopped a first down and stopped his ability to walk -- ever again. Luckily, Myrtil seems to have a head injury that'll heal.
As for the game, FIU took a businesslike approach afterwards. They were remind me of young men who went to work, did their job well enough and now will go back to suburbia to kiss the wife, hug the kids and check the fantasy football waiver wire.
They liked their big plays and offensive balance (306 first half yards split 153-153 between rushing and passing). Holding any team, even an FCS school, to 209 offensive yards considering the offenses and number of plays run these days, should get a gold star (and a cookie). They had to like their three interceptions, especially considering who made them.
Each FIU opponent attacked the safeties. Sophomore safety Niko Gonzalez attacked a dart into the ground by NC Central quarterback Malcolm Bell. Gonzalez's interception turned into Anthony Jones' first college touchdown, a 26-yard sprint through a nice right side hole. Thumbs up for Gonzalez. When's the last time you saw a linebacker intercept a Hail Mary? Sophomore Anthony Wint did at the end of the first half. In Jordan Davis' first game of the season, he blanketed an outside receiver up the right sideline and made his end zone interception so in stride, the official signaled "touchdown" before being his comrades assisted him in realizing which end he was standing in and who had the ball.
But FIU also saw its offense drive into the red zone and come away with two field goals on the first two possessions. That doesn't get it done next week against Louisiana Tech. Also, for the second consecutive week, half the opponent's points can be put on the offense's account. McGough said NCC's Pick Six was a bad read on his part. I've been waiting for that play since the third quarter of FIU's win against Central Florida. There's not much variance in the rhythm of those plays and if the target gets telegraphed, well...
As for the defense, linebacker Anthony Wint said, "I feel like we could've played a lot better on defense. That one drive they had that they scored on, there were a lot of easy corrections we could've made, a lot of mistakes I made myself that we've got to fix before next week."
That 72-yard, 1:04 drive that cut FIU's lead to 26-14 scarred an otherwise smooth defensive visage. The Panthers allowed the Eagles' running backs 61 yards on 16 carries, 40 yards and 10 carries coming during garbage time. Once less mobile backup quarterback Quinn Billermann entered the game after Gonzalez's interception, the Panthers didn't have to worry as much about quarterback containment.
Perhaps more disconcerting was that NC Central decided to remove FIU's running backs from the running game and did it much of the night. LaTech's a better defense all around than NC Central, to bathe in understatement.
But, to take, you must give to restore balance in the universe (unless you're The Steel Curtain, The Most Interesting Man in the World or Citibank). So, the Eagles left open McGough's quarterback keep off the read option as well as the deep ball.
That give gave more than the Eagles planned when they lost cornerback Ryan Smith as he broke up a potential touchdown pass to sophomore Thomas Owens that McGough sent via Spirit air instead of regional jet. Then the Eagles lost their other cornerback, Mike Jones. It was redshirt junior Tony Tate several yards in arrears on Dennis Turner's 64-yard scoring bomb from McGough.
FIU got points by taking advantage of what NC Central gave. No matter the opponent, that's the game.
Five touchbacks Saturday for Austin Taylor gave him one more than his 2013 season total and one fewer than his 2014 season total. Two missed extra points Saturday matched his two-season total of that rare event.
Word has it somebody will throw a block on punt or kickoff return next week. I'm still working to confirm this.
FIU Stadium's now got a radio booth on the north side housing both radio broadcasts. Now, they don't have to take up a suite or two to know they won't be rained off the air.
A half hour before the game, Sweetwater cops came rolling through the tailgate, ordering through the car loudspeaker to break it up and go home or into La Cage. Apparently, the theory is if there's no tailgate party going on, folks will come inside FIU Stadium instead of staying outside to enjoy themselves. This is what's done up at Central Florida.
Of course, this ignores the fact that FIU didn't invent enthusiastic tailgating with wonderful libations and people watching. Come game time at many other schools with legendary tailgates, students who want to enter the stadium for the game do so and those who don't, don't. It's about the attractiveness of what's inside, not the elimination of competition outside the stadium.
Which is pretty much what happened Saturday, judging from the foot traffic back to the dorms after Sweetwater's finest rolled through. Official attendance was 16,567. Actual attendance was about a third of that. A good start to the season compared to 2013 and 2014.
It's weird to track the growth of an FBS program by how it matches up with its FCS schedule-fillers, but, well, FIU.
FIU's 2013 loss to Bethune-Cookman could be summed up as Bethune knowing what it was doing with a more seasoned lineup while the Panthers could barely get out of their own way to get the ball snapped. After the snap, the Panthers tried. But trying without enough talent or scheme knowledge just inspires English poets to climb out of their beer and scribble something ("...into the valley of death rode the 600...").
Last year's loss to Bethune began the 2014 season but really felt like the final colon cleansing of 2013. I heard Bethune came in with the attitude toward FIU that could be summed up as "Go, get your shine box."
Now, FIU's a young adult in college football age. FIU no longer has the makeup of an FBS team vulnerable to a good FCS team. No more shines, Billy. Then again, the odds of Serena Williams losing in that particular U.S. Open match was 300-1 in some places, so they'll play this game just to make sure.
During his weekly media session, North Carolina Central coach Jerry Mack was asked if FIU was closer to Division II school St. Augustine (72-0, NC Central) or FBS perennial bowl team Duke (55-0, Blue Devil bloods).
"They're still an FBS opponent," Mack said. "They still have more scholarships, more facilities, more things than we do. But they're not a Power Five team. We match up a little bit better. They have some things and some personnel issues we feel we can take advantage of."
That sounds like a reference to FIU's safeties. In a 72-0 win, you show who you are in the first half and who you want to be (and how much class you have) in the second half. Quarterback Malcolm Bell threw the ball 20 times in their annihilation of St. Augustine. North Carolina Central's first possession lasted four plays, all passes that took the Eagles 38 yards to a touchdown. Second drive, two runs to Idreis Augustus, Bell incomplete on third down. Third drive, eight plays to a touchdown, split four and four. Fourth drive, five plays, alternating passes and runs, before a field goal attempt.
You get the idea. When they could choose, UNCC chose to be balanced. Their running backs bring more boogie than bull, thus pitching their runs right into the FIU defense's wheelhouse. And that's where the fast Panthers can hit you like Bonds, McGwire & Sosa carrying bats and juice. You're better off running at them, not away from them.
I don't think Bell gets much passing time against FIU, which is dying to start piling up some sacks. He's a dual-threat quarterback, which everybody, especially FIU, hates because college teams tend to do a poor job on pocket containment. Jordan Davis should improve the run support from the safety position, although I can see North Carolina Central using Davis' enthusiasm at returning to the lineup (academic shortcomings -- pronoun trouble?) against him with play action passes behind him.
Along the offensive line, my Spidey sense says there's something up (or down) with left tackle Dieugot Joseph and fifth-year senior guard/tackle Aaron Neilsen. I'm not sure if Joseph's hurt or there was just a general dissatisfaction with how many times Indiana's defensive line got past FIU's left side security checkpoints.
My request to speak to Joseph Wednesday was rejected, though the powers that be didn't know the topic was redshirting. That's usually a signal something's burning in the kitchen. I get the feeling we'll be seeing something like Edens Sineace and Kai Absheer on that left side.
Whatever, I think they're going to dominate the line of scrimmage, controlling the ball with the run, opening up the passing game for Alex McGough. FIU coach Ron Turner said they like to play man coverage, so this should be the chance for Dennis Turner, Thomas Owens and maybe Anthony Jones to get downfield and McGough to practice throwing long. Once McGough cools off, there might be a change to senior quarterback Trey Anderson, just to get him some more live fire.
As I head into my normal closing, which has always been an homage (ripoff) to disc jockey/professor/ex-girlfriend Tracy Fields, who turned 55 this month, it really seems simple: FIU's got better athletes and those athletes know what they're doing.
FIU 38, UNC-Central 17.
But that's one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.
Coming to you live from courtside at the FIU Invite...
Teams know they might have to deal with players barfing on the sideline during the game. Fans know they might have to deal with truculent toilets at older stadiums malfunctioning. But visiting teams don't expect a Big Ten stadium that's been renovated by a well-funded athletic program to take an explosive dump on your sideline, as Indiana's Memorial Stadium did to FIU last Saturday.
A pipe blew, sending sewage and little bits of toilet paper (presumably used) into an area behind the FIU bench before the game. The area was sealed off with cones and, fortunately, none of the action made it that far outside the FIU sideline.
The area undoubtedly smelled like the statistical call made by Indiana's stat crew that robbed FIU defensive end Michael Wakefield of a first quarter sack.
On the game's opening drive, Indiana went for the first down on fourth and 6 from the FIU 29. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld dropped back, had time, then moved around to buy more time, then ran out of time. Wakefield dragged down Sudfeld, who fumbled at least 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Indiana recovered at the 50, a moot point as FIU took over on the change of possession.
This was originally in the official play-by-play account as "Sudfeld...rush for no gain, fumble forced by Wakefield...recovered by IND...at the 50-yard line." That ridiculous description wasn't reflected in the end of quarter stats, which stated Sudfeld had two runs for -25 yards. Note how Sudfeld's other first quarter loss involving a fumble was recorded in the play-by-play as "Sudfeld...rush for loss of 4 yards to the FIU 35, fumble by Sudfeld...recovered by IND at FIU 35."
Clearly, Wakefield had sacked Sudfeld, who never gave up his intention to throw. The postgame stats counted this play as a forced fumble, but not a sack or even a tackle for loss. When FIU appealed this to Indiana, the Hoosiers conceded only that this was a tackle for loss.
Anybody in sports media for more than a decade could do six Patron shots on top of two hits of Molly and tell you what happened: a home statistic crew didn't want to tag the offensive line with a sack after the Hoosiers gave up zero sacks the first week against Southern Illinois.
And coaches tend to turn into electron microscopes when going over official stat sheets. Just as FIU's coaches, especially defensive coordinator Matt House and defensive line coach Tem Lukabu, undoubtedly noticed this fib, so would Indiana's offensive line coach make noise if the pass protection lost its clean season sheet when some fudging -- then standing stubborn on that fudging around -- could keep it.
Is it the return of the beach court? Got an Isaac Hayes complex, something against black coaches with shaved heads? Because Conference USA's announcements of the first televised games feature only one game each for FIU men's and women's basketball.
More TV time will be coming for the Panthers in the 60 (at least) additional games to be shown by the American Sports Network, which means there's a chance they might be shown in Miami as well as Massachusetts.
The Sunday, Jan. 3 still-recovering-from-New-Year's-Eve game between FAU and FIU will be on Fox Sports Neworks at 3 p.m. FSN also gets Rice at FIU on Feb. 25.
Players you won't see this week: wide receivers Shawn Abrams and Juwan Caesar, both of whom were in the Home Depot orange jerseys. And I've been remiss in not reporting sophomore safety Shemarke Spence's broken arm.
After practice, FIU coach Ron Turner confirmed the sighting I posted earlier: sophomore quarterback Alex McGough handled the first team reps throughout practice Tuesday and should start Saturday in the home opener against North Carolina-Central.
"By the time we landed (from Bloomington), he was back to the normal Alex," Turner said. "He had a little headache. He went through the concussion protocol, concussion impact and everything was normal."
Returning to the lineup after two games of academic ineligibility will be safety Jordan Davis, adding length, physicality and experience to that position. The last two assets can't be understated. Indiana plowed the row against FIU, North Carolina-Central likes to run the ball and FIU's lack of experience at safety has been exploited each of the first two games.
By the way, last man on the Juggs machine after practice? Junior safety Wilkenson Myrtil.