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.