November 26, 2014

Conklin Nominated for Broyles Award

FIU's defense led the nation in turnovers forced (33) and fumbles recovered (19). They scored six defensive touchdowns. As often written, the Panthers didn't win a game without a cornucopia of turnovers and turning one into a defensive touchdown.

Despite erratic help from the offense as far as time of possession, the defense finished 40th in the nation, allowing 363.8 yards per game.

For these and many other improved defensive numbers, FIU defensive coordinator Josh Conklin has been nominated for the Broyles Award, given to the nation's top assistant coach.

The award is named after longtime Arkansas head coach Frank Broyles, under whom many future head coaches served as an assistant. Broyles became sort of a collegiate John Madden, as famous to one generation for being a college football color man on ABC's telecasts ("he's a fine ath-uh-lete") as he was to the previous generation as a tremendous coach.

November 25, 2014

Roster Changes

The last two quarterback recruits to enroll early at FIU, EJ Hilliard in 2012 and Alex McGough last January, wound up starting games the following fall.

Just throwing that out there after FIU announced Monday that Lakeland Christian's Christian Alexander would enroll early this January.

According to MaxPreps, Alexander's completed 163 of 265 passes (61.5 percent) for 2,613 yards and 34 touchdowns against only seven interceptions for Lakeland Christian. He's also run for 427 yards at 5.7 per carry. Lakeland Christian faces Jacksonville Trinity Christian with 2015 commit Deion Eakins at offensive guard in the next round of the Class 3A playoffs. Alexander's rated at three stars across the board and reportedly had offers from Central Florida and the University of Miami.

This was the Twitter welcome. Almost Tebowesque...


As reported in a previous blog, Hilliard asked for his release Monday. After he missed a team meeting Friday morning, Hilliard tried to contact the coaching staff. Elgin Hilliard, EJ's father, said he next heard from a coach when the coach was on the team charter to Dallas Friday afternoon for the North Texas season closer. Hilliard was left back in Miami. So was senior offensive lineman Yousif Khoury.

 FEBRUARY UPDATE: Ron Turner said Hilliard hadn't contacted the coaching staff at all.

Feeling that crossed the fairness line for a player who hadn't been a problem and unhappy Hilliard hadn't been given more of a chance when the offense struggled under McGough this season, Hilliard's family went in Monday to ask for his release.

"He came in and asked for his release and we gave it to him," FIU coach Ron Turner said.

Hilliard leaves after playing in 22 games, starting eight, completing 175 of 274 (63.9 percent) for 1,756 yards, eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. 

Also not in the final game were redshirt junior wide receiver Dominique Rhymes and junior fullback Lamarq Caldwell. Caldwell didn't play in the final three games, Rhymes the final two. Turner wouldn't say each was suspended for violating team rules (Turner generally doesn't like to talk about team discipline), but did say the two didn't make the travel roster.

As for whether or not each will be back next year, Turner said, "They each have one more year of eligibility remaining. I'm going to meet with each player on the team next week to talk about what they need to do moving forward."

I'm betting against Rhymes being back next year. He'll end the FIU portion of his college career with 28 catches for 317 yards, no touchdowns.

Losses & Leavings

The men's basketball team suffered its first loss of the season, 78-72 to Georgia Southern Monday night. They'll continue their tour of the mid-major minor south at the Spartanburg Marriott Upstate Classic in South Carolina, where they'll play South Carolina-Upstate, Wright State and Cal State Fullerton on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Junior quarterback EJ Hilliard has asked for and received his scholarship release. That's the second consecutive year a quarterback has asked to transfer from the program after quarterback Jake Medlock last year.

November 24, 2014

A few (belated) thoughts on North Texas 17, FIU 14 and 4-8


Women's basketball, FIU Thanksgiving Classic, vs. Arizona, Friday, 6 p.m.

Women's basketball, FIU Thanksgiving Classic, vs. Toledo or Virginia, Sunday, 2 p.m.

The FIU football season ended Saturday with the defense allowing 17 points, a paucity by modern college-affiliated football standards; all the Panthers points coming on two return touchdowns; the offense shut out; and, finally, a loss to a team a step below at least two teams FIU beat.

That perfectly summarizes the second season of the FIU Football Family Affair Under Ron Turner.

Yes, 4-8 remains below .500, below the standard FIU fans set during the bowl seasons, below the record needed to generate the kind of charge about the program that electrifies recruiting or a fan base. It's also three wins better than 1-11, one to three wins better than any prognasticator predicted in August and two late game collapses from bowl eligibility.

And let's remember how The Firing and the Fallout did for FIU football's immediate program health what that little nuclear problem did for Chernobyl's community health. The Panthers began 2014 still being laughed at nationwide after being one of college football's favorite punch lines in 2013. Losing to FCS good Bethune-Cookman, getting the first win against FCS eventually good Wagner -- a little like losing your virginity to a street whore -- didn't change much.

To go from that to a couple of defensive stops/offensive first downs from bowl eligibility says Odysseus sits closer to home today than previously. So a bronze star sticker for the overall season.

Of course, better talent helps the situation. Most of the starts at each of eight different positions featured players not on the roster last year, ineligible last year or suspended for part of last year. All upgraded talent at their positions, some exponentially, i.e, freshman Jordan Wint and redshirt freshman Jordan Guest among the linebackers and junior transfer Anthon Samuel, freshmen Alex Gardner and Napoleon Maxwell at running back.

Sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith continued to evolve into one of the nation's best at his position. Defenses scheme to take him away from FIU and he still finds ways to produce. Barring injury, Smith's next two years will satisfy tight end snobs. And maybe even The Mackey Award folks.  

And, Richard Leonard had perhaps the greatest individual seasons FIU will see from a defensive back/kick returner. Saturday's 74-yard punt return touchdown put the dodging, flourishing signature on a season thick with impact plays. His four return touchdowns broke the school record held by TY Hilton. He broke Hilton's FIU record for punt return average in a season of 23.25 with a 23.77 average that would've led the nation had Leonard had enough returns to qualify (needed 15, had 13). His 1,184 total return yards in a season rank second in FIU history behind Lionell Singleton's 1,305 in 2007 (lot of points allowed that year, lot of kickoffs to return).

The spectacular returns, the anticipation whenever you saw a hole and hoped Leonard did, too because you knew if he hit it, later...forget those for a second. He made some plays in run defense, including a fourth down stop against Alabama-Birmingham, 5-9 cornerbacks usually decide to avoid. He led the team in fumble recoveries with four. He had one interception in the end zone against FAU and one against Marshall that killed a drive in the red zone, the latter on a night Marshall's Rakeem Cato almost refused to throw at him.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings up a question one former FIU football staffer posed to me: why wouldn't Leonard declare for the NFL draft now? While a redshirt senior year helps him grow in his craft, he won't grow in height or wingspan, Leonard's main physical shortcomings. Odds are against any defensive back repeating such a special season. He scares opposing kickers, punters and quarterbacks like he's wearing Jason's goalie mask while holding Leatherface's chainsaw with Freddy Kruger's gloves. They'll avoid him. The quarterbacks did over the last five games this season.

Also, Leonard turned 23 in September. If he waits another year, he'd be a rookie at age 25. Nothing wrong with that except it's one less year on a NFL or CFL career of indeterminate length. 

Leonard finished tied for third in touchdowns on the team this season, behind sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith's eight and Samuel's five. That speaks to much of what FIU most needs to repair this offseason.

The defense and special teams scored or set up 110 points or 39.8 percent of FIU's 276 points. The Panthers didn't win a game in which they didn't get a defensive touchdown. They still haven't won a game under Turner without piling up turnovers the way I used to pile up Peter Bondra's hockey cards: four in the lone 2013 win; six, six, four and five in the four wins this season. That's an ominous overreliance. The downside swallowed FIU against North Texas, Rice, even Texas-San Antonio. Sort of like the 1970s "energy crisis" taking an oil barrel upside the heads of American car companies continuing to crank out unapologetically huge, low gas mileage Monte Carlos and LTDs in the 1970s. Or rising gas prices taking an oil barrel upside the heads of American car companies banking heavily on SUVs in the early part of this century.

Point the finger at freshman quarterback Alex McGough because, well, he's the quarterback. But don't make it the index finger and don't make it the middle finger (that's just rude).

The coaches tend to like the way McGough runs the offense, how he handles the play options and that he usually knows when to throw the ball away. Or, at least, he does all those things, especially the third, better than junior EJ Hilliard. That's why once McGough got the job, you knew they'd ride or die with him this season. If the guy with more experience isn't the guy coaches believe is better from the neck up and he doesn't have a decisive physical advantage, he's the backup. It's why when fifth-year senior Wes Carroll held the ball too long and took a horrible sack late against Western Kentucky in 2011, starting the chain of events leading to FIU's 10-9 loss on a walk-off field goal, I wasn't surprised when redshirt freshman Jake Medlock was named the starter the next week.

McGough made some bad decisions. He made some bad throws. Freshmen do that. He also never got the best pass protection -- ehhh o-line and freshman running backs often screw up pass protection help -- and his wide receiving corps redefines "frustrating." For fifth-year senior wideout Glenn Coleman and his sometimes superhero abilities, with great talent comes great inconsistency. The rest seem to have all the physical tools to be good college mid-major receivers. But just having the tools doesn't mean you can build the house.

I'm not counting freshmen wide receivers, Dennis Turner and Thomas Owens, in that mix. They didn't contribute the way Gardner and Samuel did at running back, but it's unfair to judge them by that standard. Apples and mangoes. Turner, especially, you'd like to see grow into a viable big play option that'll keep defenses from packing the box tighter than the rows on the last FIU football charter. 

In recruiting, FIU's got two Alexanders, Lakeland Christian's 6-3, 205-pound Christian and Booker T. Washington's 5-10 170-pound Maurice, verbally committed. From what I've heard, read and seen, Christian Alexander's more Ron Turner's style of quarterback while Maurice Alexander's the kind of dual-threat quarterback proliferating throughout football. Not that Christian can't run and Maurice can't throw the ball well from the pocket. If FIU comes out of Signing Day with both, camp will be enlivened by the All-Alexander Shootout between McGough and the two freshmen for the starting job.

As far as game-breaking wide receiver commits, Central's Anthony Jones is listed as a wideout, although that might be where he played while Central had Joe Yearby and Dalvin Cook. Jones is tearing it up at running back this year. Jones ran for 156 yards and three touchdowns on 13 carries and took a post-safety free kick back for a touchdown as the Rockets scored the last 28 points in a 35-19 playoff win at previously undefeated Hallandale High.

FIU's got three running backs who've shown they can wiggle or break a tackle and go 60 on you. The Panthers need wide receivers that make opposing coaches stomachs do a flippy flop. They don't have to shop locally but it seems everybody else comes down to the 305 Player Mall for their explosives. FIU should be able to do the same. They are doing a better job of developing relationships down here.

I like the defense, back to front. This season, the defense possessed the kind of dynamic play you expect from a school based in Florida, especially South Florida. It's set up to continue in that manner. Young, fast hitters, the kind that apply hits that make Big Mama in the stands worry about her baby, among the linebackers. Speed on the corners with Leonard (if he comes back), junior Jeremiah McKinnon (very happy to see his Pick Six Saturday), sophomore Wilkenson Myrtil and freshman Shemarke Spence. Hitting and ball-hawking at safety with redshirt sophomore Jordan Davis. Watch FIU's coverage units and you can see the speed and excellent tackling abilities sophomore Deonte Wilson and redshirt freshman Vontarius can bring to the defense next year.

They've got commits from Central's Olin Cushion and Booker T.'s Ocie Rose. I haven't seen much of Rose. What I've seen of Cushion made me say, "They got a commit from him? Good deal." 

Up front, there's another year of defensive ends Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine chasing quarterbacks (read that sentence out loud in Birmingham and watch UAB's Cody Clements flinch). All the defensive tackles return for at least one more season. Hopefully, they'll be more stout against the big Peterbilt running backs, their one consistent vulnerability. Overall, FIU needs another few defensive linemen to really set themselves up for 2016 and beyond.

FIU punting brings out the Tums. You want to know that when you need a bomb, you won't get a dud. FIU doesn't know that now. Sophomore kicker Austin Taylor's 15 of 21 season on field goal attempts counts as adequate. Kickers and punters are fungible anyway. FIU should always be able to find returners on its roster.

Next year will tell us if which direction the FIU football program is headed in a definitive manner. This year did what it needed to do -- got the program out of the homeless shelter and into a low cost apartment. Now, it's time to build the house.

November 20, 2014



Men's basketball vs. Florida Memorial, Friday, 7:30 p.m.

Women's basketball vs. Cleveland State, Sunday, 2 p.m.

FIU's next real opportunity for its first Conference USA team title comes in February when swim & dive takes a break from making the best coladas at the baseball concession stand to hit the conference meet. After that, it's the softball team, which should win a title in the next two to three years.

The class signed to letters of intent last week, in alphabetical order:

Lissette Garay, RHP, Indian River State College: 10-3 with four saves 106 strikeouts in 118.2 innings and a Gibsonian 1.12 earned run average. Garay went to high school at Winter Haven All Saints Academy.

Megan Kugelmann, RHP/1B/OF, Cocoa Beach High: .519 batting average with four home runs and 32 RBI last year. In travel ball with the Tampa Mustangs, .393 average with 19 RBI. She played varsity in high school ball in seventh grade. She made All-State in 2012 (Second Team) and 2013 (First Team).

Janae Perera, OF, Tampa Sickles High: Played on Wagners GOLD Dunn, American Softball Association 18U national champions

Halie Roberson, SS/OF, Sarasota High: .330 batting average, .458 on-base percentage, with four home runs and 25 RBI.

Jackie Schoff, OF, Bradenton Lakewood Ranch High: She's also an outfielder with Roberson on the Sarasota Meet the Heat 18U team.

Abby Summers, P, Weston (Mo.) West Platte High: Class 2 All-State pitcher.


This is the kind of letter you get from the four-letter non-word when you're an FBS school and your attendance falls below a 15,000 average, as FIU did in 2012.

Download Letter from the NCAA

Considering a second consecutive year like this would put FIU on double secret NCAA probation for a decade (one misstep from restricted status, meaning no conference championship game and no bowl game, both of which are possibilities two years from now), somebody needs to work on getting fans in the stadium. 


November 19, 2014

Awards & Snubs & Wins & Losses

Conference USA's All-Freshman volleyball team includes 6-2 freshman middle blocker Jennifer Ene, the first FIU volleyballer to get award love from C-USA. Ene finished the season with 65 blocks, the strongest part of FIU's game in conference play. The Panthers finished third in blocks and fifth in digs in conference play.


From that conference caress, we go to a national cuffing from The Mackey Award folks. The honor, named after tight end John Mackey, goes to the nation's best tight end. The eight semifinalists don't include the national tight end leader in catches, yards and touchdowns, FIU sophomore Jonnu Smith.

If the Mackey Award folks confined its finalists to Power Five conference players, well, you could understand the biased thinking, even if you don't agree with it. But junior Jean Sifrin from UMass made the finalist list. I'm not going to pretend I know Jean Sifrin's game as well as I know Lalo Schifrin's music.



What I do know is Sifrin's caught 40 passes for 621 yards and six touchdowns in 10 games while sharing the field with wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, who has 81 catches for 1,245 yards and five touchdowns. Smith's put together better numbers, albeit in one more game, without any other receiver who revives drives the way he does. As Ron Turner said today, it's not as if everyone who faces FIU doesn't know who the primary receiver/safety blanket is in passing situations.


Five blocks in the opener, five blocks Tuesday' against Stetson for 6-10 Adrian Diaz and the last of those blocks preserved Tuesday's 53-52 win. Also, it was Diaz whose help defense got him the steal before guard Dennis Mavin's driving layup with 5.6 seconds left that completed an 8-0 closing run. Methinks FIU's got a post presence. 

Another key late play came when 5-10 guard Tashawn Desir retreated in transition defense with enough anticipation to draw a charging foul with FIU down 52-51. Desir slid into position, established it beautifully, took the hit.

This isn't a good team now. I'm intrigued to see the evolution, however, into what it'll be in January.


FIU allowed Florida Gulf Coast to shoot 56.1 percent from the field Tuesday in a 97-49 loss. That's 56.1 percent from the field in a game. How many Division I women's teams shoot that in practice? 




November 17, 2014

CFPA & C-USA Love Jonnu & Colimon

Sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith's two actual touchdown receptions and one cool touchdown ruled a reception by another wacked NCAA rule -- you pick up a fumbled reception and run in with it, it's like you caught it yourself -- Saturday against Middle Tennessee State gave him school records for touchdown receptions in a game (three) and in a season (eight). Smith caught 140 yards worth of passes Saturday on eight receptions.

For this, the College Football Performance Awards named him their Tight End Performer of the Week for the second time this season. Smith's 57 catches for 695 yards and eight touchdowns leads the nation's tight ends in each category.

The CFPA found junior linebacker Davison Colimon worthy of honorable mention in the Linebacker Performer of the Week category. Conference USA thought Colimon's one-interception (returned 79 yards for a touchdown), two-sack, six-tackle game in the 38-28 win against Middle was worth C-USA Defensive Player of the Week.

FIU opened a two-point underdog at North Texas this Saturday. The line has bumped up to three.


November 16, 2014

A few thoughts on FIU 38, Middle Tennessee State 28

You can read about the "Do what?" parts of this game here.

The scoring summary says this game, like a Betty Boop cartoon crossed with an early 1990s football comedy's climactic contest, calmed down after three quarters. It did. Two things though: the incredulous quality of the first three quarters lingered so strongly that some of us in the press box didn't fully realize until later that nobody scored in the fourth; and, in place of the wackiness, we got a drama building step by step at the pace of a villain clomping step by step down the hall toward your closed door.

Since successfully handling such a situation against Alabama-Birmingham, the Panthers bungled the job against Texas-San Antonio and Old Dominion. Allowing six points in the final 1:54 against UTSA, 10 points in the final 1:05 against Old Dominion, transformed diamonds into dung for FIU. Those losses, which today separate FIU from being bowl eligibile (as you knew they would), saw the Panthers unable to convert the advantages of a lead and momentum into final victory.

So, Saturday, with FIU up 38-28, the tension began. Middle pushed into FIU land, then quarterback Austin (Not Kelsey) Grammar went for a bomb on junior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon. McKinnon, recruited as Mario Cristobal tried to put some size on the corners, a 6-footer with length, speed and the knack for being around the ball just enough to be blamed for the catch. McKinnon, who first showed that tendency against Middle two years ago in a thrilling fourth quarter and had such a rough second half at Old Dominion, an ODU fan actually poked fun at him in a Twitter meme. McKinnon, who has zero career interceptions despite his talent (although that one-armed pick against UAB should've counted).

Until Saturday. Maintaining perfect position, McKinnon came down with the ball at the FIU 5-yard line. That started a succession of plays demonstrating how you close out a game.

*Anthon Samuel broke a 16-yard run on second down out to the FIU 22. Then, Jose Laphitzondo bombed a 59-yard punt to swing the field. Middle started from its own 25.

*Junior linebacker Davison Colimon hit a blitz perfectly and buried Grammar for a loss of 6 on first and 10 from the FIU 39. That put the drive on the ropes. A third and 15 sack by senior Giovanni Francois knocked down the drive. A fourth and 22 incompletion ended it.

*FIU went three and out, but kept the clock running with two inbounds runs and a completion. This forced Middle to use all its timeouts.

*Senior Demarkus Perkins tracked a sideline pass perfectly to intercept at the Middle 38.

*With Middle out of timeouts, Napoleon Maxwell and Anthon Samuel grind out a first down. Ballgame.

"Having confidence you're going to do it," FIU coach Ron Turner said of closing out the game. "Defensively, we were stopping them so our guys felt confident they could stop them. Offensviely, we were moving the ball. It's all about confidence. We hadn't done it. I told them, once we do it once, then you learn how to do it and know what it takes. Our guys got it because the confidence they gained as the game wore on."

The journey to that finish from the start could've been drawn by M.C. Escher. Here's how quickly things descended to the edge of hopelessness Saturday.

Though harder in the age of live Tweeting, I've always taken play-by-play notes of greater detail than most of my peers -- down and distance, yard line, offensive formation, defensive formation (if a notable departure from the expected), description of the play, time on the clock if important, etc. Sitting next to me during a game for the first time at Thursday night's Dolphins game, Adam Beasley was moved to say, "You take a lot of notes," something former colleague Jeff Darlington also noticed during Dolphins games.

Saturday, I stopped taking play-by-play notes on Middle's drive to a 21-3 lead. Oh, for the rest of the half, I noted big plays and scoring plays. But I'd already started writing the game story in my head, figuring I'd be taking the green flag on that at halftime. That's how single sheet flat FIU looked.

I've never questioned this team's effort or want-to. When they got annihilated 72-0, 48-0, 38-0 last season, I didn't think the players gave up. On a player level, I thought they gave all. They were just bad and playing teams better than them by 72 points, 48 points and 38 points (OK, maybe not 72 points, but other factors hampered the playing Panthers there and if you want to revisit those, go find that postgame blog.).

Anyway, the matchstick of emotion with which the Panthers began the game quickly whooshed into wisps. Sad enough so few showed for Senior Day.


Then, to see blown coverages, badly missed blocking assignments, a substitution penalty on the field goal... Such things happening in game No. 11 spoke both to a lack of player focus and to failures on a couple of levels of coaching.

I flashed back to a sepulchral Senior Day/Night I covered in 1988. A spotty, wet crowd watched an Indiana class on its way to a third consecutive bowl game for the first time in school history get rolled by Michigan State. Blake Ezor ran wild. Daily News Journal's Will Borthick, who covers Middle, wondered aloud if FIU remained weighed down by heavy hearts after last week's crushing defeat at Old Dominion. As he said that, I realized the Indiana game came a week after blowing a seemingly won game at Illinois ended the Rose Bowl hopes with which they began the season just as last week's loss ended FIU's hopes of winning a bowl game this season.

So, it seemed a solid theory. Ron Turner shot it down after the game.

"You might think that, but I didn't see it at all during the week because we came bcak here Sunday and had good focus during practice."

Turner felt, "The accumulation of the season. We don't have a lot of depth. Our offensive line and defensive line played a ton of plays. Some of those guys playing 60, 70 plays a game. We have four defensive linemen with bad ankles who were nursing them in practice. Part of it was that, the fatigue. Worn down physically causes you to be worn down mentally. We did some things, we cut practice back, to try to get that back. It's not because of want-to. They've got a tremendous desire to be successful."

He pointed out Middle was coming off a bye, played BYU the week before that and had another bye before that.

Jonnu Smith said, "Some games you come out fired up. Some games not so much. I don'tthink it has to do with anything htat we were ready or not. It just goes like that."

FIU got some flag help at key moments. With Middle up 21-3, a second and 10 21-yard completion to the FIU 43 came back on an illegal helmet contact penalty, a drive killer. The play before Colimon's 79-yard pick six gave FIU a 31-21 lead, Middle got busted for a different kind of pick. Instead of first and goal at the FIU 2 off the completion, Middle had third and 20 from the 29.

Hey, nothing wrong with that. You need breaks to make big comebacks. Jordan Parker's goal line fumble was just him dropping the ball. I don't think he saw linebacker Anthony Wint fill the route to the end zone and got flustered with fright (I would). FIU went from being driven on down 21-3, 1 yard from being down 28-10 and ended the half down only 21-17.

As to the difference defensively in the second half, when FIU cut the yardage on Middle's bubble screens and hitches from 10-15 down to 0-6 and allowed only seven points, Turner said, "Energy. We didn't have it early. And the coaches did a really good job of making adjustments to some things they were doing. The players did a good job of handling the adjustments we made."

Showing that each play matters, each possession matters, the drive that got FIU going resulted in nothing. Austin Taylor missed a 37-yard field goal after the aforementioned substitution infraction. But that drive began with Smith taking a hitch up the right sideline for 34 yards. And, on fourth and 4 from the Middle 27, quarterback Alex McGough did a lesser version of Eli Manning's Super Bowl scramble on the David Tyree play. McGough kept trying even as he came into the grasp of two Middle defensive linemen. He extricated himself for a 7-yard gain.

Not a turning point on the scoreboard, but it sure was on the field. He kept trying. That's a simple, significant thing. Once they got some juice flowing, they kept trying.

Just like Anthon Samuel kept trying on the 31-yard run before the Hail Mary. You might question whether or not FIU seriously kept trying to score, running inside handoffs with 40 seconds left on the clock. Heck, I'm on record as believing you're either seriously trying to score or you're not and those plays aren't serious attempts to score with less than a minute on the clock. They gain more pointless pain than yards. Turner said after the game some of his own coaches said to him "kneel down" instead of run the ball.

But it worked because Samuel's legs never stopped moving and Middle let up on the play.

FIU never let up on the game. Or, their season.  

November 15, 2014

Gameday XI: Dealing With Middle Men

I know the football Panthers sit at 3-7 and falling. I know it's a 3:30 p.m. game. I know the national telecast allegedly will be shown on local TV. 

But I consider last year's empty stadium for the senior ceremony one of the saddest things I've seen in 27 years of covering sports, aside from events that involved serious injury or death.

Remember Middle Tennessee State's Kevin Byard? Down here, we prounounce his name "RICH erd LEN erd" just like Murfreesboro is pronounced "just drive to Nashville, OK?" Byard's the guy who returned an interception 51 yards for a touchdown less than a minute into the second half of a 48-0 shellacking Middle laid on FIU last year. He's got four career Pick Sixes. Earlier this year, against Old Dominion, he returned his first punt in college competition. He took it back 76 yards. He hasn't returned another one.  I'm sure there's a perfectly good and fearful reason, explainable in authentic coachspeak gibberish, that Byard doesn't get used on punt returns.

FIU just should be thankful. Freshman quarterback Alex McGough should be thankful while avoiding Byard, who has 14 interceptions and is the NCAA's active leader with 327 career interception return yards. Might not sound manly. Ask Rice, Marshall and Old Dominion if they cared how hairy-chested they looked when they treated Richard Leonard like he came straight outta Chernobyl. Throw his way every once in a while just to keep everybody awake, then go pick on somebody else.

Something tells me this game could come down to who takes advantage of turnovers for points and field position. Yeah, I know, basic stuff. Still, you can win the turnover battle and lose. I don't see that happening today if both teams have turnovers.

Middle comes at you running Reggie Whatley, Jordan Parker, Shane Tucker (95 yards vs. FIU last year) and sophomore quarterback Austin Grammar. I see FIU getting more flummoxed in pass rush against Grammar than the read option stuff. Grammar throws the ball 29 times a game, yet has taken only seven sacks. I'd expect FIU to get to Grammar earlier than they got to Old Dominion's Taylor Heinicke, who whipped some senior savvy on the Panthers whether beating the blitz by spotting the open receiver in time or escaping collapsing pockets. Unless the numbers lie, the Blue Raiders aren't quite as explosive on the outside as you'd expect on the outside. One completion longer than 60 yards this season and Devin Clarke's 14.2 yards per catch on 21 catches leads the team.

I'd be shocked if FIU just pounded Middle with Anthon Samuel, Napoleon Maxwell and quarterback Alex McGough all day, as happened against soft tackling Old Dominion. They're going to have to get something more than good downfield blocking from the wide receivers.

Earlier tonight, I thought Middle, 31-20. The sportsbooks have Middle as a five-point favorite with an Over/Under down to 49 after starting at 53. 

I'll stay with Middle, but 28-20.

That's one Irish Black man's opinion. I could be wrong.

Conference USA Power Rankings

For football, naturally. The power rankings are back after spending seven days in Boulder, Colorado, eating pizza rolls, Pop Tarts and think tanking trenchant issues such as what state would Dr. Sheldon Cooper eventually evolve/devolve to if Cosmo Kramer were his neighbor? 

1. Marshall (9-0, 5-0 in Conference USA): Hiding a diamond in the dirt of a weak schedule.

2. Louisiana Tech (7-3, 6-0): Because they didn't just outscore Western Kentucky. They stoned the Hill People's prolific offense while putting up nearly a point-a-minute on their own, 59-10. 

3. Middle Tennessee State (5-4, 4-1): Suffered their only conference loss to Marshall.

4. Rice (6-3, 4-1): They've got six (in a row). If that's not all there is, the Owls will get Lucky Seven Saturday against Marshall.

5. Alabama-Birmingham (5-5, 3-3): On the verge of bowl eligibility. And, possibly, extinction. Daggone shame.

6. Western Kentucky (4-5, 2-4): Say "Hilltoppers defense" to a Western fan or coach to see this reaction...


7. UTEP (5-4, 3-2): If UAB's Bill Clark isn't Coach of the Year for getting the Blazers to the edge of bowl eligibility as the program crumbles under his feet, Sean Kugler deserves to be for getting UTEP even this far.

8. Old Dominion (4-6, 2-4): Treacherous steps. Fun stadium. Good game experience. IMG_0856[1]

9. FIU (3-7, 2-4): Remember when the Former Sunblazers were .500 and leading UTSA 10-0 late in the first half? Good times, man, good times... 

10. North Texas (3-6, 1-4): Somehow whipped FAU last week in Denton, 31-10 with their ninth quarterback or something.

11. FAU (3-7, 2-4): There's a Dutch oven full of disappointment cooking down at this end of the power rankings...

12. UTSA (3-7, 2-4): ...and the Roadrunners serve up theirs in a cup of Coker.

13. Southern Miss (3-8, 1-6): Probably thinking "ESPN didn't send Wright Thompson to Hattiesburg when WE were repping the state with an undefeated record..."


November 11, 2014

XY Soccer: 2 All-CUSA, 1 All-Freshman; Why No Perk Up at ODU

Senior forward Quentin Albrecht ended his FIU career on the upswing, though the team didn't make the Conference USA tournament: Third Team All-Conference USA his freshman year, Second Team All-CUSA as a sophomore and junior, First Team as a senior after an eight goal, two assist season.

Junior midfielder Daniel Gonzalez (two goals, five assists) made the Third Team and redshirt freshman midfielder Donald Tomlinson (two goals, one assists) was named to the All-Freshman team.


Going against an experienced multi-faceted offense with point totals that resemble Super Bowl ratings, you'd kind of want good health for the very physical strong safety you consider a team leader. Alas, FIU plsyed the whole same Saturday without fifth-year senior Demarkus Perkins. Junior Jordan Davis played strong safety with Richard Leonard moonlighting at free safety.

"He had a quad contusion," FIU coach Ron Turner said. "We were hoping he was going to be able to go, thought he was going to be able to go. He didn't do much in practice, we knew we weren't going to start him, but we were hoping he'd be able to go. Doctors thought he would be able to go. But, he couldn't. He should be fine this week."

All FIU's ouches from Saturday's game -- center Donald Senat, left tackle Dieugot Joseph -- apppear to have been healed.

November 10, 2014

Just One More Thing...


Just thought of this, but...

It would've been nice if some of the coaches or higher up suits in the FIU football contingent had gone over to Old Dominion's soccer field or taken some of the players to show support for FIU's men's soccer team in its season finale Friday night. The football charter arrived soon enough. FIU's athletes often show solidarity with one another. It would be cool if the post-college adults would show a little love, too, even off a disappointing season.

If that sounds wacky, consider that two years ago, Mario Cristobal planned for the football team to go en masse to the FIU-Middle Tennessee State women's soccer Sun Belt tournament game at South Alabama. The Panthers' charter plane managed to get to Mobile late enough to make that impossible.


November 09, 2014

A few thoughts on Old Dominion 38, FIU 35

FIU coach Ron Turner ducked out of the early evening chill into the S.B. Ballard Stadium alcove used for postgame media bringing enough steam to cook an entire bag of green beans. Definitely not in "ho ho ho" mode.

Hopefully, Turner reserved some of the boiling stuff for himself. Everybody played a part in the second loss of the season (with Texas-San Antonio) that the Panthers will remember when they're home for the holidays and somebody else is in the Bahamas on Christmas Eve.

I logically opened by asking about freshman quarterback's Alex McGough's reckless attempt to alchemize a sack into a gain, which turned into the interception that turned into ODU's game-winning field goal. I asked if that's something you have to expect sometimes when you've got a young quarterback. Turner quickly made sure I knew that play didn't lose the game and other things happened to drive FIU down the losing path.

"It's not one play. It's not one play, believe me, believe me," Turner said. "It's not one play. That play was not the game. We had other opportunities."

I think Turner was being protective of McGough. Expected and fine. By comparison, after the similar loss to UTSA, Turner referred to running back Alex Gardner's third quarter fumble on the UTSA 1-yard line three times, prompted only once by a question and not a question directly about that play. But Gardner's a running back. Show me a coach who worries about his running back's mindset as much as his quarterback's and I'll show you a coach selling insurance or real estate.

Later, in talking about McGough's overall play, Turner did say, "Alex did some good things. We didn't ask him to do a lot as far as throwing the ball, but he did a really good job of handling the run game, getting us in and out of the proper plays that we wanted. Did a nice job. Obviously, the last one, he'd like to have that back. We'd all like to have that back. He's just a young guy trying to make a play..."

Exactly the point of my original question. 

Turner aggressively corrected me when I asked about not being able to run more clock on the previous two possessions when up 35-28.

"We were trying to get first downs. We did what we did all game long, which was running the ball. We felt that was the best opportunity. We were trying to get first downs and score some more. We had to score. If we were running the clock out, we would've gone to two tights and just pound the ball. We continued to run our game plan. And we didn't get it done. We had no thoughts about running the clock out. We had thoughts about getting first downs and scoring points because these guys are very good on offense."

No. 1: I was referring to better running what they call in the NFL "the four-minute offense." OK, FIU had 5:53 when they got the ball, but the same principles apply. Run properly, the four-minute offense chews clock while picking up a few first downs and forcing the opponent to use timeouts. It's not as easy to do in college with the clock stopping after first downs to move the chains, but FIU already showed it could move down the field in bite size pieces. The first drive of the game, 80 yards, took 8:19 off the clock.

No. 2: I know this is playing the result a bit, but exactly what would've been wrong with going double tight end, one wideout-I formation or two wideouts-one back and bludgeoning Old Dominion to death?

FIU's game plan all day -- as good as it was obvious, mind you -- came straight from Big Two, Little Eight, Woody Hayes-Bo Schembechler Ten Years' War Era: work the ground game, mix in the occasional throw to keep the secondary from creeping, maybe catch them peeking (into the backfield). Add terrible artificial turf and it's 80 percent of the college football games I watched in the 1970s.

The Panthers exhausted a defense that got punked when it was fresh. Anthon Samuel, who alpha male'd his way through half the Monarchs defense on his fourth quarter 26-yard TD run, said he thought FIU had worn Old D down. Despite being down center Donald Senat and left tackle Dieugot Joseph, the offensive line started to dominate Old Dominion, both on the flanks and up the middle, or at least control them enough. The wide receivers blocked beautifully downfield (Glenn Coleman's done a very good job of that).

The Panthers prepared Old Dominion's defense to be crushed. So why not crush them? Line up in a power formation against a weary, weak side and say "We're moving you or moving over you -- your choice." Everybody figured on FIU staying on the ground anyway. Heck, in for a penny, in for a pound. That even better sets up a play action mid-range throw or bomb, something McGough sells well with his ball-handling (such an underrated skill). If you're trying to score, then try to score.

Instead, Napoleon Maxwell got one carry, stoned for 1 yard. McGough kept on an option, which figured if the Panthers wanted to keep running the option as the Monarchs started going all out for the running back on those plays. He fumbled and wide receiver Clinton Taylor made his best play of the season by outfighting several for the recovery. On third and 5, Old D looked for a draw or screen and wound up body slamming Maxwell on a middle screen. FIU could've run a bootleg pass to Jonnu Smith or Akil Dan-Fodio (if not open, McGough keeps it), gone downfield off play action, power run, anything except deception that failed to deceive.

The next possession, went thusly: Samuel got stacked up sweeping left, tries to reverse field to the right and loses 4. OK, it happens. McGough, who looked gimpy after taking a hit on the Maxwell screen, keeps for 9. Third and 5 again. They ran Taylor in motion similar to the wide receiver sweep that worked for the 2-point conversion. McGough faked it to Taylor and carried for 3. No more Samuel, not even faking it to him on the third down. Old No D might've bought that better than they bought the fake to Taylor, which they looked at like a used Yugo.

The whole fourth quarter seemed like a blown opportunity after FIU had scored on five consecutive drives. You could include one of those drives, the field goal that put FIU ahead 27-21 with 3:00 left in the third, as another missed opportunity.

The first turnover FIU's gotten since Richard Leonard's second quarter interception against Marshall was a fumble scooped up by Leonard (of course). First, junior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon, as part of his eventful evening, bumped into Leonard on the fumble return and unintentionally assisted with the tackle. Two rushes. Third and 6, McGough scrambled for no gain. Here was the receiver grouping on the field: T.J. Lowder, Clinton Taylor, Fred Porter. A chance to go up two scores and no Glenn Coleman? Not another big receiver besides Porter?

Defensively, FIU looked lost until the second half, their heads clouded by Old Dominion's multi-faceted scheme run with such aplomb by quarterback Taylor Heinicke. A nice passer, I found Heinicke's mobility to be more impressive. He's not fast, but terribly elusive. Ask FIU defensive end Michael Wakefield. Wakefield found himself staring down Heinicke in the open field like a father catching his daughter's boyfriend sneaking out of his house at 2 a.m. Sack, right? Maybe no gain. Heinicke gave Wakefield a little lazy leg and left the Panthers' sacks leader reaching at air. 17-yard gain. Wakefield seemed to linger a little longer than usual after hitting Heinicke on the next play.

You won't see a 1-yard touchdown pass with more athletic skill at both ends than Heinicke's toss to Zach Pascal in the third quarter. Heinicke rolled out with the pass-run option. FIU safety Jordan Davis got in Heinicke's path to the end zone and his length cut his vulnerability to Heinicke's slick wiggles. Just as Davis touched Heinicke with the sideline there as help, the quarterback backed up the right sideline and lobbed a ball to the back of the end zone. Pascal scraped the sky for the ball and tapped a foot inbounds. Originally ruled incomplete, the call was changed on replay.

McKinnon defended on that play and on Pascal's later dazzling catch to the FIU 6 two plays before the game-winning field goal. He made two nice pass breakups against Pascal earlier on goal-to-go plays from the 7, swatting away a slant and an out route. He also got the last of the five pass interference calls that vexed FIU's cornerbacks throughout the game and flounced so in reaction that Leonard went over to calm him.

Former FIU wide receiver Nick England caught one pass for 11 yards for the Monarchs, an important gain that changed third and 14 from the FIU 43 to fourth and 3 from the 32 on the drive to the game-tying touchdown. Both late Old Dominion fourth downs, a running back sat wide open on the sideline. On that same sideline, ODU didn't cover Maxwell on his 57-yard touchdown. I didn't mind FIU bringing the company so many times late in the game but leaving running back Gerard Johnson so wide open on fourth and 3 late in the 10th game of the season speaks of sloppiness at a couple of levels.

"In the first half, we made way too many mistakes defensively," Turner said. "We had them back on the 1 yard line. They've got a third and 8 (actually, third and 3) from the 7, 8, whatever it is, and we line up in teh neutral zone, give them a first down. They go down and score on that drive.

"We had another two times where we had third and 13, third and 14," Turner continued. "(Heinicke) scrambles and gets the first down. We were undisciplined in our rush lanes. Guys weren't where they were supposed to be. They didn't make mistakes, we did. We're not going to win until we get that stuff corrected."

The third and 3 to which he referred was one of three snaps that resulted in offsetting penalties (it should've been four -- two plays after McKinnon's second PI, the Monarchs got called for holding while FIU senior corner Randy Harvey treated wide receiver Antonio Vaughan the way Mongo Santamaria did bongos.). Anyway, the Turner-mentioned third down was a 6-yard pass wiped out by offsetting penalties, the customary FIU offsides and an ODU hold.

As I said in the pregame blog, by this point in the season, those pre-snap penalties reflect on both the coaching staff and the players. 

As does this loss. 

November 08, 2014

Gameday X: Youth and the Old

I'll get to Saturday's Former Sunblazers-Current Monarchs in football in a minute. First, FIU vs. Old Dominion footballers on the pitch Friday night.

Let's put aside that FIU lost 3-2 on a penalty kick golden goal by Sidney Rivera in the 104th minute after FIU senior Quentin Albrecht tied his last college game on a shot from maybe 4 yards inside the area in the 86th minute. FIU ends the season 6-9-1, 2-6 in Conference USA. Here's what I saw:

A school with similar soccer history to FIU's and an undergraduate enrollment of just under 20,000 playing in a this-century retro brick soccer stadium drawing several hundred fans covered in hats, gloves, scarves and blankets (my fingers are still thawing from being ungloved for occasional Tweets from the game). OK, Senior Night might've helped the crowd, but it's not exactly senior sayonara for Old Dominion. Next week's Conference USA tournament is on their home turf.

The apparent multi-level support -- economic, administrative, fan -- for that program should not outstrip FIU's to such an embarrassing degree. There's no excuse for it. Just as there's no reason Old Dominion, at $37 million, should have an athletic budget almost 50 percent larger than FIU's.

When I heard rumors FIU might host next year's men's or women's conference tournament, I wondered "How? Where? Did FIU show the conference pictures of Barry's place (University, not Jackson) or Little Haiti Soccer Park?" And how does a Division II school and a rundown neighborhood in one of the worst run major cities have superior soccer facilities to a massive school's athletic department gorging annually on all-you-can-eat student fees?

Maybe I'm smoking about this just because my body's still looking for any form of heat. By the way, some of you have asked about evaluations of executive director or sports and entertainment Pete Garcia. This was the most recent one, according to a records request response from FIU Download President to PG.

FIU's got a low flow money shower paralleled by its low flow offense. The latter should be helped today by facing an Old Dominion's Yard Sale defense -- show up, take what you want, including this yard, that yard, 10 yards, the whole development. The Monarchs give up 233.1 rushing yards per game, 485.8 yards per game and 40.7 points per game. They're like the prom date everybody wanted.

Still, FIU coach Ron Turner said, “If we get in a shootout with them, we have no chance. We have to play our game. And play within us. We’re not a get-in-a-shootout type offense. Obviously.”

And, obviously, Old Dominion knows this. The Monarchs know if you take away the tight ends, especially sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith, the Panthers lose their fizz aside from the occasional bomb to Glenn Coleman. FIU wants to pound it with Anthon Samuel and Napoleon Maxwell and keep Old Dominion senior quarterback Taylor Heinicke (pronounced like you're not going to pay a lot for this muffler) on the sideline, chilling in the late afternoon breeze.

To do this successfully, FIU must avoid its knack for the pre-snap boo-boo that turns the Panthers offense into a cha-cha dance -- two steps forward, one step back, 7 yards forward, 5 yards back -- and puts them in long yardage situations on second and third down. It's a demerit on the analysis sheets for both players and coaches that this remains a problem this deep into the season. It speaks to discipline. John Madden, who coached the legendarily rambunctious 1970s Raiders, used to always say he didn't define a disciplined player by whether he dressed cleanly, said "sir" and "ma'am," and made curfew. If he jumped the snap on third and short, he was an undisciplined player.

Speaking of discipline, after last week's 31-17 loss to Rice, Turner clearly was fuming about some aspect of team discipline. He didn't name names, but junior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon got stapled to the bench after nobody covered James Mayden up the seam on his 69-yard touchdown catch.

“Just didn’t have a great week of preparation. He knew he didn’t," FIU defensive coordinator Josh Conklin said. "We gave up the deep one, which was one we covered all along. And we just felt some fo the other guys were playing a little bit better at the time. (Freshman Shemarke) Spence can cover and he did a pretty decent job covering the big guy (Rice's Jordan Taylor) until the end there. He can cover guys in the slot. We’ll use some different matchups this week. Jeremiah’s ready to go. We had a great talk. We’ve got to have those guys play well and use their matchups.

"I thought Wilkenson Myrtil played a really good game, solid game, physical on the perimeter, which was good to see."

Heinicke's top three receivers, Antonio Vaughan, Zach Pascal and David Washington, have 42, 45 and 30 catches, respectively, and yards per catch averages of 17.7, 13.5 and 13.0. Translation: he'll look for the best matchup not involving Richard Leonard and work that. As I've written here repeatedly, FIU's four wins under Ron Turner have been Saturday morning at Roslyn's bakery -- a total of 20 turnovers in those four games. The three wins this season each featured a defensive touchdown by Leonard. Sometimes, coaches don't overthink themselves, go A=B, B=C, therefore A=C and tell their quarterbacks things like, "stay away from turnovers and, unless we're Liam Neeson looking for our daughter or saving Private Ryan, I don't want to see us in Leonard's neighborhood."

Leonard might not see the ball aside from kickoff or punt returns, where Old Dominion's gives up a whopping 15.9 yards per punt return, worst in the nation, and 24.3 per kickoff return.

Old Dominion opened a 2.5-point favorite and is now up to a 5-point pick by the smart guys. The over/under is 60 after starting at 60.5. So, they're seeing 33-27 or so.

I'll go 35-31, Old Dominion.

But that's one Irish-Native American-West African descended man's opinion. I could be wrong.

November 06, 2014

Anywhere But Here

It's a game Buffy, Willow and Xander used to play on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Apparently, it's also what the American Sports Network plays with FIU.

Places you can see Saturday's ASN telecast of FIU at Old Dominion football: Chicago; Washington D.C.; Baltimore; Boston; Pittsburgh; Las Vegas; Little Rock; Flint, Mich.; Beaumont, Texas; Wheeling, Ohio; Norfolk, Virginia, where the game's being played; and 44 other markets.

A place you can't see Saturday's ASN telecast of FIU at Old Dominion football: Miami.


November 04, 2014

Medical Report from La Cage

Freshman running back Alex Gardner's right shoulder was out of the sling, but head coach Ron Turner said he'll be out this week against Old Dominion, the week after against Middle Tennessee State and is questionable to return against North Texas. Freshman linebacker Fred Russ has his right arm in a sling, so, obviously, he'll be a spectator Saturday.

As for freshman linebacker Anthony Wint and his sprained knee, Turner said he'd be surprised if Wint isn't back to face Middle. I didn't see defensive tackle Imarjaye Albury among those coming off after practice, but Turner said he's fine after being helped off the field late Saturday against Rice.

Freshman quarterback Alex McGough missed practice while dealing with a family situation. He'll be back Wednesday.


November 03, 2014

Well, There's Always The Swim Team...

Since my post a week ago on the postseason chances for the fall sports teams...

Men's Soccer: Beat FAU 2-0 Wednesday to stay alive for the Conference USA tournament then lost 1-0 to Kentucky to get eliminated. A win in the regular season closer against Old Dominion can only tie New Mexico and South Carolina, each of which beat FIU head-to-head.

Women's Soccer: Tied Marshall 1-1 Thursday and were shut out of the conference tournament when Louisiana Tech beat FAU in overtime. The remaining match, Sunday's makeup with Alabama-Birmingham, was cancelled as neither team would qualify for the tournament. Unless football pulls off a natural hat trick, this 8-8-2 record will be fall's Best of FIU.

Volleyball: Lost 3-1 to Rice and 3-1 to Charlotte to fall to 3-10 in conference, 6-20 overall...but they...are...ALIVE, in a pack with UTEP, UAB, Middle Tennessee and Charlotte, all of which have three conference wins and one of which will get the eighth and final conference tournament spot. Three conference matches remain for FIU: at UTEP (tossup), at Texas-San Antonio (12-0 in conference), home season closer against Louisiana Tech (1-11 in conference).

Football: Lost Saturday 31-17 to Rice and need to win three straight after losing three straight to even get a bowl to give up its phone number. The Former Sunblazers are three-point underdogs at Old Dominion this Saturday.

The swim team, a winter team that warms up in the fall, moved to 3-0 by beating Indian River Saturday 174-126 as last week's Conference USA Swimmer of the Week, freshman Silvia Scalia, won the 100 backstroke and 200 back. Freshman Brittney Fant won the 500 freestyle and 200 butterfly (my shoulders and lats hurt just typing "200 butterfly").

Friday, the aquawomen host Illinois State. 

November 02, 2014

A few thoughts on Rice 31, FIU 17

Before we get started on Saturday afternoon's Bizarro show, congratulations to former FIU basketball player Tymell Murphy on being drafted by the NBA Development League's Canton Charge, the affiliate of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Also, I don't know how much American Sports Network pays Conference USA and, by extension, its schools, but it can't be enough. Anybody who has read this blog over the last few years or follows me on Twitter knows I'll never confuse FIU with Nebraska or Ohio State as far as attendance. The reasons for that are numerous, well-documented, oft-discussed and not worth listing right here, right now for the few newbies who might be here.

But ASN exacerbated a tough sell for FIU -- losing record, ambivalence-inspiring Rice as an opponent -- by forcing the kickoff back to noon. Noon on the day after Halloweeen in a city that's knows about early mornings only if coming from late nights. Noon on the day after Halloween involving a school that's obese with enrollment, but still relatively bony as far as campus and near campus housing.

That's how you get about 20 cars in FIU's famous tailgating area. That's how you get a student section crowd at kickoff that wouldn't fill a classroom. That's how you get an overall crowd that maybe got into four digits at its peak. This week's attendance embarrassment wasn't wholly on FIU. ASN shared parenthood, then didn't make sure its telecast aired in this market after sending out releases declaring the game would be shown here.

What everyone else could see on their TV screens was bizarro football, at least from FIU. It's as if the appearance of Rice caused a negative version of FIU to appear, one governed by the George Costanza theory of doing the opposite of his instincts.

The team that couldn't complete a deep ball not only did so twice, but opened the game with a bomb and another throw over 20 yards downfield off play action. It took surveillance van-sized running backs to crash through through FIU's run defense this season. On Rice's first play, 5-7 chunky Jowan Davis resembled a snake molting tackles on a 19-yard touchdown run. FIU defended well against wide receivers downfield, yet been leaky against tight ends and pass catching running backs. But senior Jordan Taylor and James Mayden got free for touchdowns of 63 and 69 yards, Taylor escaped bad tackling and Mayden frolicked away from zero coverage.

"That's not who we've been all year," FIU coach Ron Turner fumed.

When FIU started using freshman Shemarke Spence on Taylor, Rice began looking for Taylor.

I haven't seen Turner this upset about a loss since last year's Bethune-Cookman game. And, he sounded the same.

"I'm disappointed in the football team for not playing anywhere close to the way we're capable of playing," he said. "I know exactly why. I'm not going to share it with anybody. I'll share it with the team. And I'll share it again tomorrow. I know exactly why we didn't play very well today. We'll get it straightened out one way or another. We wouldn't have beaten a high school team today."

Considering FIU shares a town with Booker T. Washington and Central, if you wanted to put a positive spin on that comment, you could say at least it shows the coaching staff's been out there at the high school games involving the big teams this year.

As for the reference to what Turner believes is the reason FIU went wacky Saturday, a reference he made at least one other time in his postgame media session, I don't know what he's talking about. I asked if it had to do with attitude. He verbally wriggled, seemed to indicate I was on the right path, but wouldn't really elaborate. 

“I know exactly why and I’ll share it with the team. We didn’t play well. I’ve got a folder full of mistakes we made throughout the game. It started off the bat – missed assignments, false starts, offsides. Stupid stuff. But I know why. I won’t go back and say it’s necessarily an attitude thing.”

One thing FIU had to be happy about from Saturday is freshman running back Napoleon Maxwell. In place of injured freshman Alex Gardner, ran for 88 yards on 16 carries as the two bombs to Glenn Coleman helped unclog opposing run defenses as hadn't happened in a few weeks. The Panthers look Conference USA solid with Gardner and Maxwell as a running combination the next few years, the next year plus with junior Anthon Samuel in the mix. If the offensive line ever gets together, book the bowl tickets. 

“We had some guys, some individuals do some really good things today," Turner fumed after complimenting Maxwell. "Some individuals. Make sure you note that – some in-di-viduals do some really good things today. We didn’t do anything well as a team. And, in this game, you win as a team. They were a team, we were not.”

Turner also needs to ask for answers from the halls of the Fieldhouse. This is the third consecutive game that FIU went flaacid in the second half. Against Texas-San Antonio, you can say that didn't happen until the Panthers reached the red zone in the second half. But against Marshall and Rice, the post-break offense need not have bothered. That can't be blamed wholly on player error.

FIU's best second half drive came after redshirt freshman linebacker Jordan Guest cracked the spit out of Darik Dillard on a fourth and 1. The Panthers marched to their 48 where on fourth and 1, they decided to ride with the momentum and go for it. Well, sort of momentum -- quarterback Alex McGough slipped when cutting into open space for that final yard on third down. 

The fourth down call, well...I'm always of the belief if you need less than a yard and you've got a quarterback who stands a legit 6-feet or over, put him behind the center and guard and tell them to move something. Or just not get shoved back into the quarterback's mouthpiece. Instead, FIU did what used to drive folks crazy during the Mario Cristobal days on third or fourth and short -- shotgun snap, running back into the line. Maxwell got stacked up. I'm not sure he ever was down. He wasn't sure he ever was down. But he accepted that the refs whistled his forward progress stopped.

Remember when wide receiver Richard Burrows got first team reps through much of training camp? He made his first catch of the season Saturday. The starting wide receivers were Glenn Coleman and Fred Porter. Junior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon played, but sophomore Wilkenson Myrtil started in his place.  

I hear that sports and entertainment director Pete Garcia responded to "Fire PG!" chants from the famous Section 112 by inviting them up to his suite where free beer would be served. Half went.


With the Conference USA tournament field set and neither FIU nor Alabama-Birmingham included, the two schools decided to say "never mind" for the makeup game re-scheduled for today at UAB.




November 01, 2014

Gameday IX: Beat A Hoot or Bowl Is Moot; C-USA Power Rankings, Too

Before we get to breaking down Rice vs. FIU or (Texas Woodsys vs. Former Sunblazers at the Cathouse, the place where colleges pimp out their football players), let me catch up on Conference USA football power rankings.

1. Marshall (8-0, 4-0 in Conference USA): The Herd's an easy No. 1 but two things beg to be addressed. If the conspiracy theorists didn't get enough ammunition from FIU coach Ron Turner hip checking the officiating in Marshall 45, FIU 13, last week's Marshall win against FAU armed the conspiracy crowd better than France and Spain did the U.S. during the Revolution. Marshall benefitted from some embarrassingly weak decisions from the zebras. It should be said Conference USA crews aren't exactly filled with Jim Tunney clones so mistakes, even fat ones, might just be mistakes. The exalted status of Marshall and the conference's understandable desire to have a team muscle its way into national discussion invites such suspicion.

Secondly, if Marshall's not happy with being left out of the College Football Playoff's top 25, the Herd needs to kick itself in the butt. A non-conference schedule that includes Rhode Island, Ohio, Akron? Get a better brand of whipping boy. The next time it looks like you have a team whose biggest threat could be bad hotel breakfast eggs, buy out or postpone an Akron and see if you can convince Purdue or Kansas to find the time to take your beating. If blasting through Conference USA leaves analysts cold, what makes you think giving middling MACtion the cell block cigarette boy treatment gains any more respect?

2. Middle Tennessee State (5-3, 4-1): Much as I respect Louisiana for being the best state per capita for football talent, I think Middle's more dynamic. 

3. Louisiana Tech (5-3, 4-0): They'd have a loss, too, if they played Marshall.

4. FIU (3-5, 2-2): Here's my problem: I really don't want to keep FIU here with that record. But I don't want to drop the Panthers beneath UAB after the Blazers got smoked by Arkansas before the Razorback faithful sobered up from the pregame moonshine. Can't put FAU ahead of the Panthers after FIU clobbered FAU. So, here they stay.

5. FAU (3-5, 2-2): The Florida Woodsys loss to Marshall looked like FIU's minus the two fourth quarter Panthers turnovers that took the game from attrition to Dresden.

6. UAB (4-4, 2-2): Arkansas showed it has better -- say it with me like Frank Broyles, folks -- ath-uh-letes.

7. UTEP (4-3, 2-1): Gets a Big Mover shout for destroying Texas-San Antonio and allowing two first downs. Don't feel too good about yourself -- Soutern Mississippi is good enough to upset you and bad enough that you'll get cut no slack if that happens.

8. Rice (4-3, 2-1): Not sure whether to move them up for winning or down for allowing 21 points to North Texas. Heck, I'll just keep them right here.

9. Western Kentucky (3-4, 1-3): Western nominated defensive back Juwan Gardner for C-USA Defensive Player of the Week after his 96-yard interception return touchdown. The Hill People gave up 51 points to Ol' 'ominion. Next week, they'll nominate a blind squirrel for finding a nut.

10. UTSA (3-5, 1-3): Freshmen are going to freshmen even redshirt freshmen. Quarterback Austin Robinson completed 30 percent, threw for 32 yards and the Roadrunners made only two first downs in a 34-0 loss to UTEP.

11. Southern Mississippi (3-5, 1-3): Moves up a spot because, well, 66-51 between Western and Ol' 'ominion. 

12. Ol' 'ominion (3-5, 1-4): They play on Saturdays but they're easy like a Sunday morning on defense. No D or d. On the bright side, of the 66 points Western Kentucky scored, only 59 came on offense.

13. North Texas (2-6, 0-4): Gave Rice problems for a half, then decided to heck with it and started giving Rice the ball and the game. 

Now, on to Saturday's game.

I watched Rice in its season-opening loss to Notre Dame, its third game and first conference game, a shootout loss to Old Dominion, and last week's win against North Texas.

Out of the gate, Rice looked just off the level of the team that steamrolled Marshall in the Conference USA title game. By Old D/No D, their depth already had been tested and found wanting. Reconstructed against North Texas, the Owls still looked very ehhh. The Mean Green's more scrambled than the Jumble this year. Still, they hit Rice for a kickoff return touchdown and a 55-yard touchdown bomb from a third-string quarterback getting his turn to start for a destitute offense. 

They've got wide receiver Jordan Taylor back and he streaked to an 88-yard touchdown on a deep post on Rice's first play against North Texas. That's not the kind of play FIU's given up regularly this season, Louisville notwithstanding. In fact, the more I watch and think about Rice's offense, I keep thinking it's a good matchup for FIU.

Even bomb-loving Marshall got more from exploiting the Panthers short zone pass coverage. But Rice's tight ends have a picayune four receptions this season and four Rice running backs have 31 combined receptions. So over seven games, those two positions average a combined five catches per game. 

The number of runs and yards per carry for Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson dropped since suffering his shoulder injury against Old Dominion: 10.0 carries per game (excluding sacks) the two games before ODU, 5.5 in the four games afterwards; 16.2 per carry (excluding sacks) the two games before ODU, 5.13 afterwards. Makes sense both on a competition sense -- Notre Dame and Texas A&M probably forced more Plan B plays than Hawaii and Army -- and a health sense. That also makes him slightly less difficult to defend for FIU, which should get better on the quarterback than North Texas did.

Watching running backs Jowan Davis and Darik Dillard, there's no doubting their quality. Neither, however, should be the Aztek-with-a-helmet against FIU that Pitt's James Conner or Marshall's Devon Johnson were. Against North Texas, Rice kept getting seals on the edges. I don't see them doing that with the same consistency on FIU.

You can bet Rice coach David Bailiff ordered extra work for the kickoff coverage units this week. You give up a 100-yard touchdown return the week before you see the nation's No. 9 kickoff returner, who already has a coast-to-coast kickoff return on his career resume, you move that task to the top of the to-do list. Also, this could be a low scoring game of field position. Every yard counts.

So now the Panthers have the ball. How well do they run it with junior Anthon Samuel, taking over for freshman Alex Gardner and his injured shoulder? Will Samuel be backed up by freshman Napoleon Maxwell or junior Lamarq Caldwell? What can FIU expect from freshman quarterback Alex McGough? Who'll start at wide receiver?

Fifth-year senior Glenn Coleman's flashed his talent well enough to average 18.6 yards per catch on his 18 receptions. A big play or two by Coleman opens the defense up and lets FIU breathe. They spent the last three quarters against Marshall and much of the game against UTSA getting squatted on like empty project apartments because the Panthers offense can't earn any respect in the secondary. Whether it's Samuel or Maxwell with the rock, everybody's getting stuffed if that doesn't change. 

After the Marshall loss, FIU coach Ron Taylor said whoever could get open and catch balls downfield would get the job coming out of the bye. But, at some point, players are who they are. FIU's loaded with juniors and seniors who seem to possess all the good given tools to be good receivers but can't get open and catch the ball. And expecting a guy of good size-heavy feet like Fred Porter to be Fred Biletnikoff isn't fair to him. 

FIU's third in Conference USA in sacks per game. North Texas is first. Any guess as to No. 2? Yep, Rice. Expect McGough to have more than a few throwaways. The Owls' Ryan Pollard got an interception return touchdown last week when North Texas' quarterback stared down the receiver on a crossing route. McGough needs to break himself of that habit.

Rice's defense owes its recent impressive numbers to playing Army (we're much better on the battlefield than the gridiron), Hawaii ("Hawaii, Five-0" describes how many points Hawaii would get against FIU in six games) and North Texas (who wishes this season was a dream of Pam Ewing's). I thought they were solidly "Meh." That's the Steel Curtain and the '85 Bears combined compared to Old Dominion and Western Kentucky, but if they overwhelm the Panthers, it's the Panthers fault. 

Could be a hard day's afternoon for both quarterbacks. I can't get a feel on this game. I'm having trouble visualizing FIU scoring enough. On offense, that is. On defense and special teams, I can see a runback or a punt block or something funky scoring or setting up points.

Oh, FIU 23, Rice 17.

But that's one black man's opinion at 3 a.m. I could be wrong.

October 30, 2014

Soccer Up, Volleyball Down, Mr. McGough

UPDATE: Saturday's noon football game against Rice will be on WBFS-Channel 33 in Miami/Fort Lauderdale.

Wednesday night, men's soccer got what it needed against FAU. The women try to get theirs tonight against Marshall.

The men's 2-0 win on goals in the 78th minute by Josue Espana and 88th minute by Darren Rios pushed them into eighth in Conference USA or one place behind the conference tournament cutoff. With six points in conference play (6-7-1 overall, 2-4 in conference), they're one point behind Marshall, which has one conference game left, and Old Dominion, which has two as does FIU. They play each other a week from Friday in the season closer. FIU's other remaining game is a Sunday home date against No. 16 Kentucky.

By the way, FIU's 1984 Division II men's national champions will be honored at Saturday's noon football game. I wonder if this will include Broward College coach Munga Eketebi, an FIU soccer fixture as an All-America on that team; an FIU assistant for decades; then FIU head coach.

Eketebi felt his firing unfair after laboring for years under NCAA sanctions and felt athletic director Pete Garcia treated longtime head coach Karl Kremser shabbily. Also, some former athletes feel Athletics treats them as minatory presences. I heard Athletics grumbled over the number of former football players in the FIU radio suite during the Marshall game two weeks ago. As if this was Michigan or Harvard with 100 years of football alumni, so you've got to limit how many have the run of the Pay Extra areas.


Tonight at FIU Soccer Stadium is about need. Well, seven seniors, but mostly basic need.

FIU (3-4-1, 8-8-1) needs at least four points in its final two games to assure themselves of a conference tournament place. The Panthers need a win tonight if Louisiana Tech, Charlotte and Old Dominion win tonight. Marshall, with this being The Herd's last conference game, needs a win to feel good, a tie to stay at lightly queasy because a loss means Kaopectate, especially if the aforementioned trifecta comes through.

It's Senior Night. Chelsea Leiva, Ashleigh Shim, Johanna Volz, Marie Egan, Caroline Hernandez, Marlena Stablein and Sara Stewart will be honored.


If volleyball games had in-stands, in-match betting the way inner city high school football does, you could make tuition betting on the team that wins a wild, extended third set after splitting the first two sets. That's just the way sports momentum rolls.

Which is what FAU did to FIU Wednesday. After the Owls took the fourth set 30-28, FIU dropped the fourth set 21-25 and the match 3-1 (22-25, 25-20, 28-30, 21-25).

Junior Lucia Castro had a match high 20 kills and freshman Brianna Gogins' eight blocks exceeded FAU's team total (seven). Alas, the Panthers still fell to 6-18, 3-8 in conference and remain outside the eight-team conference tournament cutoff. 


Asked FIU coach Ron Turner what he wanted to see from freshman quarterback Alex McGough after the bye.

"Just continue to get the ball out quicker and continue to work on his accuracy, which has improved drastically during the season and has to continue to improve," Turner answered. "Not so much just accuracy, but ball placement. Ball here" -- Turner mimed catching a waist high ball in front of him -- "as opposed to ball here" -- he mimed reaching behind him for a catchable ball. "At one point, it was just "get it near him."" 

I wanted to talk to McGough about this. His quarterback coach from Tampa tweeted that he'd had a good workout addressing some mechanics. My request was denied. 

I don't think that rejection was at all personal. McGough's a freshman and coaches worry about "focus" with freshmen, particuarly ones getting media attention. Also, it's the football way. If you want to ask an NFL quarterback a question outside his Wednesday mass media session, you need to be part of the TV crew covering that weekend's game or have the quarterback's cell phone number with a personal relationship that invites away-from-the-facility conversation.

Which is why I sometimes say that football, love it though I do, needs to get over itself.

Many hockey goalies, including NHL wins record holder Martin Brodeur, talk to media on and off the record after the game day morning skate. You could talk to Martin Brodeur, winner of three Stanley Cups, after the morning skate with a Stanley Cup Finals game seven hours away. Almost every mistake a goalie makes winds up on the scoreboard. No incompletes in their world. Only pick sixes. 

You deal with that for 11 years from guys who play with a crackhead skinny margin for error every night, it's pretty laughable when you see quarterbacks sheltered as they are. After all, coaches won't forbid all small talk with hotties or watching SpongeBob.

Only because they can't.




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