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.

WOMEN'S SOCCER

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.

Anyway...

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.

VOLLEYBALL

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. 

FOOTBALL

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.

 

October 28, 2014

Scalia (not Antonin) Swimmer of the Week; Football Stuff

Silvia Scalia, a freshman from Lecco, Italy, ripped off the second best 100 backstroke time in FIU history last week while opening a winning 400 medley relay and plowed the water for Conference USA's second best 200 back time this season (to her own previous 200 back time).

For this, Scalia earned Conference USA's Swimmer of the Week award.

In FIU's rout of Florida Southern, Scalia's leadoff relay leg of 55.76 slotted her behind only then-sophomore Johanna Gustafsdottir's 53.94 at the 2013 Sun Belt Conference Championships (as the relay's first leg, it can be counted for records at that distance). Her 2:01.81 in the 200 back was a digit off her 2:01.69 against FAU on Oct. 4, the third best time in FIU history.

FOOTBALL

Junior linebacker Patrick Jean has been suspended for the rest of the season. FIU coach Ron Turner said Jean's potential return to the program was still up in the air.

As of right now, Saturday's game isn't airing in this market. It seems common sense or common decency that if the TV rights holder is going to do a Freddy Kreuger on FIU's attendance by forcing the Panthers to play at noon, the least the rights holder can do is make sure the game gets aired in this market.

The spread, which began with Rice an 8-point favorite, is now down to 6 with a 50.5 Over/Under.

 

October 23, 2014

Conference USA Power Rankings (Bye Week Version)

FIU's not playing football this weekend. Conference USA continues.

1. Marshall (7-0, 3-0 in Conference USA): The Thundering Herd can be the Moonwalking Herd and stay clean in conference until the Nov. 22 game against Alabama-Birmingham. They're cruising while getting stopped by the authorities more than Darnell Dockett. They commit 90.0 yards worth of penalties per game, a Rakeem Cato deep ball more than second most...

2. Middle Tennessee State (5-3, 4-1): ...which commits 69.1 yards per game. Followed the FIU formula for dousing the UAB Blazers -- a few big play touchdowns (Middle had 3) and a rout in the turnover count (Middle won 3-0). 

3. Louisiana Tech (4-3, 3-0): The Techies outlasted Texas-San Antonio 27-20 in Ruston with three scoring drives under 25 yards and a fumble return touchdown off five turnovers. 

4. FIU (3-5, 2-2): I never saw the sense in dropping a team in a poll because they lost to a higher-ranked team by about the amount you figured they would. FIU got drilled by Marshall. They joined a rapidly growing club.

5. UAB (4-3, 2-2): This is the last week I'm staying faithful to FIU whipping the Blazers at Legion Field. A good performance Saturday against Arkansas could move UAB up a step on the bowl ladder (yes, the Blazers will reach bowl eligibility).

6. FAU (3-4, 2-1): The Owlmen came off the bye with another wild comeback win at home, this one against Western Kentucky. Did you know they're the only Conference USA team to recover an onside kick this season? Maybe they should try one after each score against Marshall.

7. UTSA (3-4, 1-2): Just as FIU's Alamodome fail could be credited to youth, the Roadrunners collapsed under the youth of their redshirt freshman quarterback. Still like their defense and offensive speed.

8. Rice (3-3, 1-1): Check back with me the day after Halloween.

9. UTEP (3-3, 1-1): So they bully the punks on the schedule. That's what you're supposed to do.

10. Western Kentucky (2-4, 0-3): Allowing 533.8 yards and 39.5 points per game, both worst in C-USA. Are the Hillpeople playing with actual defenders or are they using 11 electric football guys in Western uniforms? The books might've been tempted to put a four-digit over on this week's game with Old Dominion.

11. Old Dominion  (3-4, 1-3): See Western Kentucky. Old D plays with no D -- 463.9 yards and 36.9 points per game. This is what one of the bands should play in that game.

 

 

12. Southern Mississippi (3-4, 1-2): Moves up one spot with a 10-point win over...

13. North Texas (2-5, 0-3): Of the Mean Green's 213 points, 77 (36.2 percent) came in an annihilation of FCS foe Nicholls State. FIU finishes the season against the Mean Green. So getting to the final game with five wins might be like hitting the Slide section in Parker Brothers' Sorry right before the bowl eligibility spot on the board.

October 22, 2014

Gone Girls & Guys

To start, FIU coach Ron Turner confirmed Wednesday the expected: freshman running back Alex Gardner's right shoulder injury will keep him out of the Nov. 1 Rice game "and he'll be a longshot" for the Nov. 8 game at Old Dominion.

With Gardner out, expect junior Anthon Samuel, junior Lamarq Caldwell and freshman Napoleon Maxwell to get an increased workload. Samuel's the best all-around back of the three, Caldwell the best pass protector and Maxwell the most explosive.

The football team gets a few days off. With no game sucking up my Saturday, no pregame blog Friday night, no postgame blog to finsih off Sunday morning, that opens up the weekend for...

Women's soccer! No, at Texas-San Antonio Friday and UTEP Sunday...

Men's soccer! Darn, at Marshall Saturday...

Volleyball! At Western Kentucky Friday, at North Texas Sunday. Sigh...

Swimming & Diving! Saturday at Florida Southern...

Everybody's gone. No balls being kicked, carried or spiked with meaning. Going to the athletic side of Camp Mitch this weekend could make you wonder "Where is everybody?"

October 21, 2014

Alex Gardner Update

About the right shoulder of FIU's rushing leader...

Me: What's the Alex Gardner report?

FIU football coach Ron Turner: "Um...(three-second pause)...Don't know. It might be a couple of weeks, we don't know. So, we'll wait and see how it comes along. I'd say he's very doubtful for the next one (Nov. 1 home game against Rice) but you never know."

Me: He's not for the season, is he?

Turner: "I hope not. I mean, you never know on these things. We'll look at it later this week and see, get a feel. I don't think so. But you never know. It's a possibility." 

Not exactly saying the only pads Gardner will be using from now until the spring are iPads. But coaches tend toward this kind of uncertainty when they know something's bad or very likely to be bad. As I wrote yesterday, I can't see them risking Gardner against Rice.

FIU will practice again Wednesday, then get Thursday, Friday and Saturday off.

I'll be writing on defensive tackle Imarjaye Albury later this week.

 

 

October 20, 2014

On Young Shoulders

There was no official update on freshman running back Alex Gardner's right shoulder, injured in the fourth quarter of Saturday's 45-13 loss to Marshall.

The sling in which Gardner had his right arm Monday morning -- I saw him on campus three times -- wasn't exactly heavy bondage stuff, but looked like basic shoulder immobilization. And it apparently didn't pop out, as was the initial concern.

Broad range semi-educated guess by a non-medical professional? One to four weeks. Even if on the short side of that, I'd bet on Gardner being held out of the Rice game just to make sure everything's all healed. For what it's worth...

 

Gardner's 582 yards and 4.2 yards per carry leads FIU in both categories. Sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith's 42 catches, 485 yards and four touchdowns lead FIU in all those categories. After a Saturday afternoon bowl of Rice, Smith should own the single season school records for receptions (47, Samuel Smith, 2006) and yards (510, Samuel Smith, 2004) for a tight end.

(Speaking of Smith, the College Football Performance Awards gave Smith another Honorable Mention nod among the nation's tight ends for his eight-catch, 74-yard game Saturday).

The quarterback's a true freshman and tends to make good decisions, if not always the best throws. The freshmen and sophomore linebackers show tremendous promise.

In other words, there's a good young base that's getting experience this year as key players in games that matter and games that contain more shifts than the opponent accelerating over FIU. Roster holes remain. There's a lot to question about the coaching staff though the defensive guys deserve credit for scheme adjustment and just going with the best players, regardless of class.

FIU's 3-5 with at least three games remaining against teams (Rice, Old Dominion, North Texas) that look quite beatable. The other opponent, Middle Tennessee State, clearly looks like the second best tea in the conference but isn't exactly Oregon.

Long way of saying anybody that disappointed in this football season at the bye needs a reality shot. Or a move to Tuscaloosa, where you can annoy Little Nicky.

October 19, 2014

A few thoughts on Marshall 45, FIU 13

I'm not a big fan of Single Shooter Theories. Fans always want the Single Shooter. They want an Oswald. They want the simple reason for failure. A simple reason for failure means a simple, therefore easy and possibly quick, fix. So, prosecuting observers often convict the quarterback or coach alone when losses tend to be conspiracies of failure and achievement.

Several things happened over the last two and a half quarters to turn a crackling 14-7 game into yet another Victim of the Week TV movie starring Marshall. But I'd put at the top of the list FIU's inability to get anything going downfield to the wide receivers.

Look, Marshall's a better team on both sides of the ball. And if Marshall's the Death Star, quarterback Rakeem Cato's Darth Vader, a Jedi master even on a night completing only 55.6 percent of his passes. FIU didn't have a single tackle for loss or sack. One play, FIU junior defensive end Michael Wakefield broke through and, with Cato dead, froze as Cato wiggled in the pocket then got off the pass. Jedi mind trick? Hypnotic dance? 

To have a shot, FIU needed to play very well and hope Marshall had something of an off night. As well as the Panthers played early in the game, they still suffered key boo-boos. The third and 6 call from the Marshall 25, a run to Lamarq Caldwell, demonstrated either somebody making The Big Tall Wish or spectactular ignorance of the personnel on the field. The blocked field goal followed. 

(The first play of that drive was perhaps the funniest, definitely FIU's longest, play of the night. Tight end Cory White shrugged off a tackle after a reception, then ran looking repeatedly over his shoulder as if he'd just dropped dime on the Cocaine Cowboys. Jermaine Holmes caught White from behind and tackled him after a 46-yard gain.)

Later, a block-in-the-back penalty on Richard Leonard's interception return took FIU from a first and goal, down only 14-7 all the way back to the FIU 7. Just those two instances saw six points, maybe a halftime lead left on the field by FIU. Get that and without the problem we'll now get back to, this could've been an interesting game late for people other than the over/under bettors and families of the backups.

On the issues downfield, I'm not just parroting what FIU coach Ron Turner fingered as the reasosn FIU ran for 75 yards on 13 carries (5.7 a pop) in the first quarter and 37 for 125 (3.4 per carry, not counting sacks) after that. Take a look at this second quarter Tweet. Or this one.

By the end of the second quarter, Marshall started squatting on the run. By the third quarter, with FIU down 24-7, Marshall sat on those slants, hitches and bubble screens like Big Mama sits on her bleacher spot for four quarters.

Last week, a Texas-San Antonio defensive lineman got the timing down on one of FIU's 3-step drops and deflected the pass into an interception. Saturday, the same thing happened in the fourth quarter with defensive lineman Arnold Blackmon playing L.C. Greenwood and fellow trench worker Jarquez Samuel getting the interception. Samuel returned the ball to the 27. Rakeem Cato to Devon Johnson and it was 31-7. Before you could say "Game Over," from the FIU 26, Marshall's Corey Tindal jumped a short route for a 30-yard pick six.

Before Clinton Taylor's three catches for 27 yards and a touchdown on the garbage time drive to FIU's second touchdown, the summary of the wide receivers production would be "T.J. Lowder, one catch, 19 cards" and "DeAndre Jasper, one catch, 5 yards." Each had at least one drop and another medium-tough catch not made. Not putting them alone. You could go find plays where receivers didn't compete for balls or ran soft routes. Or quarterback Alex McGough simply blew the throw. Or, McGough didn't have enough time.

The FIU downfield play all night might've been when freshman Thomas Owens, seeing an end zone throw for him into double coverage was about to be intercepted by Marshall's fifth-year senior cornerback Darryl Roberts, stripped Roberts as well as Roberts has any receiver this year.

"You can only run so much. You've got make plays in the passing game," Turner said. "We had a lot of opportunityes to make them. We either didn't protect well enough -- we had one protection where we had exactly what we wanted, but we turned the Sam linebacker loose when he should've been blocked -- things like that hurt us. It's hard to keep running the ball effectively if you can't make plays in the passing game."

All FIU's big pass plays were tight ends breaking tackles. White's 46-yarder was his only catch. Sophomore Jonnu Smith (8 catches, 74 yards) broke free for a 24-yarder on FIU's first touchdown drive. Akil Dan-Fodio's 27-yard gain actually was something of a deep cross.

"We've got to start making those plays in the passing game with our wide receivers. It can't keep being 'Jonnu, Jonnu, Jonnu,'" Turner said.

Marshall's wide receivers didn't make many plays, actually. Only eight catches for 109 yards and a touchdown, a quarter's work some games for that bunch. They drew enough penalty flags, however.

It was interesting watching Cato work. The first drive, he went at fifth-year senior safety Justin Halley. Later, he wanted some Wilkenson Myrtil and threw at him for a couple of plays. He tried Jeremiah McKinnon often. McKinnon made a nice breakup of a deep post to Angelo Jean-Louis early.  You could almost see him thinking, "Richard Leonard's over there, so I'll hold off on Door No. 3 unless absolutely necessary. Let's check over here..."

The first time Cato threw at Leonard, he did so out of desperation, off a scramble. Cato found Tommy Shuler for 16 yards along the left sideline to the FIU 8. Two plays later, he stepped up in the pocket and his Jean-Louis for a touchdown. The second time Cato threw at Leonard, McKinnon intercepted, but Leonard got flagged for pass interference on Shuler. Leonard disagreed with the call. It was at the press box end, and it looked like a good call from my angle. But, then, things tend to have a way of working out -- the next play, Leonard got his interception.

"I thought I was going to get a lot of work today, but they proved me wrong," Leonard said.

Stop the game at 38-7 and you see what a good job the FIU defense actually did on Marshall, aside from massive running back Devon Johnson (117 yards rushing, 79 and two touchdowns receiving). Big backs -- Johnson, Pitt's James Conner -- seem to be FIU's yellow kryptonite. One touchdown was defensive, another touchdown on a short drive after a turnover. They beat the Panthers on special teams with the blocked field goal and Shuler's 34-yard punt return being the night's only huge return.

Good teams expose your deficiencies. Marshall exposed FIU's. The Herd exposed FIU's youth and inconsistency. 

The lack of big plays from the wide receivers grows into a second level concern if they lose running back Alex Gardner, who can explode out of the backfield, for any of the remaining four games with a shoulder injury. Anthon Samuel's a good back who's as good on the 3-to-6-yard grind, but Gardner's got more niftiness. 

There's much to work before the next game, Nov. 1, noon, against Rice, and much time to work. There's no Oswald. It's a Conspiracy of Deficiencies the Panthers must unravel.

October 18, 2014

Gameday VIII: A Plan For Marshall; Women Win in OT

It's been a busy Friday -- writing, playdates, cooking for playdates, Sushi Samba -- I've got a Breast Cancer Awareness Walk early Saturday followed by a post-walk social followed by the game. So, let's get to the nitty, as Joe Bob Briggs would say, and get out of here.

Let's start with: the Homecoming Council members connected with booking the Homecoming week concerts (DJ Tiesto) and comedy acts (D.L. Hughley, Eddie Griffin) should get free drinks and hot stone massages for a month. Great gets.

Whoever can claim connection with scheduling Homecoming for the week of the Marshall game should get hot stones thrown at them. Did somebody not see Florida State or Alabama on the schedule and figure, "Oh, what's the difference between Marshall and Rice?" The weekend FIU wants to end on a feelgood note and somebody picks the weekend FIU plays a team that's not just thinking "we must go undefeated" but "we must score like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Clinton at Studio 54 and engineer 1983 Nebraska blowouts?" That's cooking bacon naked, just asking for trouble.

Speaking of the Cornhuskers, next year Nebraska's comes down for a Sept. 19 game against the Hurricanes. Why not see if the Children of the Corn will go for a full week in South Florida bookended with games? See if they'll drop Southern Mississippi Sept. 26, and pick up the Panthers. Then, FIU can have Nebraska for Homecoming! If you're going to get spanked at Homecoming, get the people whose predecessors practically trademarked 69-17 and has 48 years of experience delivering it.

The FIU coaching staff should've made t-shirts this week saying "Keep Calm and Do Your Job." The first part is for the offense. The second part is for each individual member of the defense.

Taking the second part first...you can talk all you want about FIU's offense helping the defense against this juggernaut offense by "shortening the game" or "keeping their offense off the field." FIU's defense is going to have to stop Marshall's offense at some point. It'll have to do it more than once.

FIU defensive coordinator Josh Conklin described Marshall's offense simply: spread out to make the defense play seven against the run, four against the pass and beat you in the one-on-one showdowns. They bet on opponents not having enough quality defensive backs to cover their receivers. They also bank that opponents won't have enough players who can get off blocks before 243-pound Devon Johnson starts his Peterbilt imitation.

"There's more pressure on each individual job, controlling his gap," Conklin said. "If he's got the quarterback, he's got the quarterback. If he's got the dive, he's got the dive. That's what they've build their system around."

Does seeing how Pitt's big, athletic line and James Conner simply wore down FIU last month make you wonder why Marshall would do any more than occasional passing. Here's why: they want points. Big, fat hunks of creamy carbo-loaded points to build obese blowouts and grab attention of decision-makers who sniff at Marshall's schedule quality. Also, quarterback Rakeem Cato's their best player. You don't take the ball out of your best player's hands too often.

So, they're going to throw the ball on FIU and they're going to look for the matchups. On the outside, expect them to go after junior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon instead of redshirt junior Richard Leonard. Their DVR isn't broken. Leonard's simply having a better year against better receivers. The last time Cato saw Leonard, who Phil Steele named a Third Team All-America in his midseason awards, Leonard got an interception in The Beef O'Brady's Bowl.

And they like to throw long. Cato's got the second best yards per completion in the nation.

“Their wide receivers do a great job at the top of their deep ball routes of finishing the routes,” Conklin said Tuesday. “I just told (the cornerbacks) today, we’ve got to get used to finishing on the deep ball.”

Meaning “going attacking at the high point. Not waiting for it," he continued. "A deep ball’s a 50-50 ball, we’ve got to think about we’re turning into the wide receiver, and we’ve got to go get it, not wait for it. If you get position on the wide receiver, great. But now we’ve got to go attack it.”

Marshall's allowed only eight sacks in six games. It'll be tough to get to Cato. Sometimes, however, a good middle push that prevents a quarterback from stepping into a throw works as well as pressure off the ends. Those throws come with a little zip minus, giving coverage time for recovery or interception positioning. Cato's thrown five interceptions and fumbled three times, losing one. Marshall's lost six fumbles as a team. Add it up and the FIU bakery should be open for more turnovers. The Panthers haven't won a game this year without a defensive touchdown. They probably won't beat Marshall without one.

Without much of an offense, FIU yapped at Marshall's heels last year, up 3-0 after one quarter and down 13-3 until the last minutes of the second. A Marshall interception and touchdown drive ended the half 20-3. And, "aloha" means good-bye. 

"The approach we take this year will be a lot different," Conklin said. "Last year, our deal was, we're going to come out trying to blitz and pressure, then kind of settle in. This year, we're structured differently. We feel like we've got a better plan in terms of how to defend them."

Offensively, keep calm. That's what FIU head coach Ron Turner knows he has to do as a play caller especially if Marshall gets off to its normal start.

Marshall's given up 132 yards and zero points in 30 plays on six first opponent drives. Meanwhile, The Herd has scored four touchdowns and a field goal on its six opening drives and hasn't trailed all season.

Too often, coaches facing a Marshall get down early, 10-0, 14-0 and go into full Costanza fire mode.

 

Coaches start reaching for a desperation big punch instead of building their way back into the game. Look for FIU to keep trying to run the ball, throwing the slants and bubble screens. One thing they might want to try, though, especially against fifth-year senior corner Darryl Roberts early -- some type of hitch and go with a serious speedster. Roberts will play in the receiver's mouthpiece and sit on the short stuff early. Just as Texas-San Antonio got the rhythm of FIU's plays, guessed right and got a tipped pass interception, he'll be trying to do the same. FIU needs to throw some wariness into Roberts early.

Middle Tennessee State, with a jumbled line and a few running backs, got to Marshall on the ground off option runs. FIU can do that. Maybe the Panthers can run it with stretch plays, also.

FIU needs to get early points and stay in the game for a half. Here's Marshall's halftime scores this season: 28-3, 17-0, 27-0, 31-3, 42-7, 28-17. The Herd's experienced, but do they even remember what it's like to be in a one-score game at halftime? Throw in the factor of several Marshall players from South Florida getting the rare or last chance to play in front of the home folks and parts can get awfully tight if the score stays close. 

But, cooked down to the rock, it's a veteran team at its peak against a young team hoping to bounce back from disappointment.

Marshall 48, FIU 24.

That's one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.

WOMEN'S SOCCER

FIU took a 1-0 lead into the final minute on Shelby Bowden's first goal of the season. Then, the drama began.

Rice scored with 29 seconds left in regulation to tie the game. In the 97th minute, FIU senior Ashleigh Shim set up fifth-year senior Chelsea Leiva for Leiva's fifth game-winner of the season (ranking fifth nationally), a golden goal that gave FIU a 2-1 win.  FIU, 7-6-1 overall and 2-2-1 in Conference USA plays North Texas Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m.

October 15, 2014

CBSSports.com Loves Jonnu Smith; FIU Still Gets C-USA Diver of the Week; Men's Soccer Needs A Hug

CBSSports.com's midseason All-America team put sophomore Jonnu Smith as its Second Team tight end.

That's not mid-major All-America team. That's midseason. In fact, Smith's the only player not from one of the Power Five conferences on the First or Second Team Offense or Defense.

DIVING

Sabrina Beaupre's graduated and gone, but FIU's still owning its conference's Diver of the Week award via a blond Canadian.

Freshman Rebecca Quesnel's wins in the 1-meter and 3-meter events against FAU earned her the Conference USA Diver of the Week award. Her 276.83 score in the 1-meter was the fourth best in FIU history.

The swim team's 1-0. That makes them the only FIU team currently above .500.

MEN'S SOCCER

None of the football teams had a happy weekend whether in the dome, on the pitch or in Birmingham. But men's soccer (3-7-1, 0-4-0) could really use some comfort food Wednesday night at 7:30 against Central Florida

We've dissected American football's failure in The Alamodome. By the way, Ron Turner blamed four of the six fumbles on poor ball security, letting off wide receiver Dennis Turner's fumble along the sideline and saying freshman quarterback Alex McGough's sack-fumble was a matter of being crunched in the pocket.

The women's soccer team (6-6-1, 1-2-1 in conference) lost 2-0 at Middle Tennessee State Sunday despite a season-high 19 shots. Friday's match at Alabama-Birmingham got deluged out. But that rain's not quite as sad as another MacArthur Park downpour of goals breaking men's soccer hearts Saturday at No. 7 Charlotte.

Three days after losing to South Carolina on a goal with three seconds left -- the fourth late game goal scored between the two teams -- FIU took a 3-0 halftime lead. Goals by Daniel Gonzalez, Donald Tomlinson and Josue Espana put FIU 45 minutes from an upset.

They never got there. Charlotte pumped in four goals in 18:05 to take a 4-3 lead in the 70th minute, a lead the 49ers took to the end. FIU's held second half leads in three of their four conference games -- and lost each one.

 

 

 

 

Conference USA Rankings: Football Power, Football Coach Pay & AD Pay

Because it's that time of the week. We're talking football here.

1. Marshall (6-0, 2-0 in Conference USA) -- Like Thriller on the 1983 album charts. Though quarterback Rakeem Cato draws the attention, running back Devon Johnson's run for 814 yards and averaging 7.8 per carry. The defense overwhelms in the first half while the offense builds a big lead. They stomped Middle Tennessee State 49-24. That Alabama-Birmingham game will be interesting.

2. Middle Tennessee State (4-3, 3-1) -- By putting them here, I'm saying Marshall's three touchdowns up on the rest of C-USA.

3. Louisiana Tech (3-3, 2-0) -- Moving up by standing still. Tech took last weekend off before facing Texas-San Antonio this week. Speaking of UTSA...

4. FIU (3-4, 2-1) -- All that bumbling about and still losing by only three on the road via last-minute field goal. I'll drop the Panthers only one spot for that 60-minute fart in the Alamodome last Saturday.

5. UAB (4-2, 2-1) -- Serving up a 56-point Mean Green Flambee last week points up the Blazers combustibility. Saturday's shootout with Middle could dictate the direction of the remainder of the season for both teams.

6. Western Kentucky (2-3, 0-2) -- Didn't play. Didn't lose. Didn't give up 40. Hey, not everybody on this list can say that.

7. UTSA (2-3, 1-1) -- If they keep redshirt freshman Austin Robinson in at quarterback, get the Roadrunners now. In a few games, when Robinson really gets himself together at the college level, there's going to be a lot of "Beep, beep" and zipping along to the end zone.

8. FAU (2-4, 1-1) -- The Woodsy Boys come back from a weekend off to host Western Kentucky.

9. UTEP (3-3, 1-1) -- New Mexico, New Mexico State, Old Dominion...say one thing for the Miners. They know who they have to beat to eat.

10. Old Dominion (3-4, 1-3) -- Having the ball against this defense is like getting to play with Canadian football rules -- a 12th man, forward motion in the backfield at the snap -- except with four downs against a defense playing by American rules. Giving up 46.5 per game to FBS schools.

11. Rice (3-3, 1-1) -- Sitting out this week after beating Hawaii and Army, before getting North Texas. Yeah, I'm not impressed, either. Check back with me after they come to FIU on Nov. 1.

12. North Texas (2-4, 0-2) -- Thought they had a defense they loved. Gave up 56 to UAB. So now they're down here looking for the love they lost.

 

13. Southern Miss (2-4, 0-2) -- Guess Ole Miss and Mississippi State sucked up all the good players in the state.

THE LONG GREEN

 

In honor of Oct. 15, the day FIU pays its athletic director a retention bonus (this year, about $76,130), here's this year's list of Conference USA football coach and athletic director base salaries. Put together from public records and published reports from public records.

FOOTBALL COACHES

Todd Monken, Southern Miss, $700,000

Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee State $721,704

David Bailiff, Rice $646,386

Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky $600,000

Doc Holliday, Marshall $600,000

Dan McCarney, North Texas, $600,000

Ron Turner, FIU $501,000

Charlie Partridge, FAU $500,000

Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech $500,000

Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion $425,000

Larry Coker, UTSA, $400,000

Sean Kugler, UTEP $280,000

Bill Clark, UAB Undetermined, though some sources put it at $600,000

ATHLETIC DIRECTORS

Pete Garcia, FIU $380,654

Brian Mackin, UAB $300,000

Rick Villarreal, North Texas $275,000

Mike Hamrick, Marshall $255,000

Chris Massaro, Middle Tennessee State, $250,000

Patrick Chun, FAU, $250,000

Robert Stull, UTEP $233,000

Lynn Hickey, UTSA $147,540

Tommy McClelland II, Louisiana Tech $140,000

Camden Wood Selig, Old Dominion Not Available (He’s not eating bologna -- ODU’s $37 million is the largest department budget in the conference).

Joe Karlgaard, Rice Not Available

Bill McGillis, Southern Miss Not Available

October 14, 2014

LB Wint Possibly Out for the Season

FIU's outstanding freshman outside linebacker, Anthony Wint, was on crutches with a knee brace and an ice bag over his left knee Tuesday.

Wint walked off the field in the third quarter Saturday after suffering what appeared to be a left leg injury, but didn't return to the 16-13 loss to Texas-San Antonio. From what I saw Tuesday, I wouldn't expect Wint back for several weeks, maybe the entire season. He's FIU's second leading tackler behind fifth-year senior safety Demarkus Perkins and the only linebacker to start every game this season for FIU.

Junior backup running back Anthon Samuel wore the Home Depot orange injury jersey for a rib injury. FIU coach Ron Turner said Samuel could've played if the Panthers had a game Tuesday.

The line on this game started with FIU a 21-point underdog and is at 21.5 to 22 points now.  

October 13, 2014

Smith Makes The List; Volleyball Sweep!

Is sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith already one of the 33 best tight ends in the nation?

FIU's quarterbacks would say so, stopping just short of waving foam No. 1 fingers for Smith. They look for him when in trouble the way some people look for Roy Black.

The John Mackey Award people think so. Smith's one of the 33 tight ends on the award's midseason watch list. The award honors the baddest tight end in college football. Smith's 34 catches, 411 yards and four touchdown catches leads FIU in each of those categories.

The word that should make FIU extra happy is "sophomore." Six other sophomores and two freshmen made the list. The other three Conference USA tight ends on the list -- UAB's Kennard Blackman, UTEP's Eric Tomlinson and Western Kentucky's Mitchell Henry -- all are seniors.

VOLLEYBALL

FIU, 6-13 overall, got to 3-3 in Conference USA play by sweeping the weekend road trip. I mean, really sweeping the weekend -- 3-0 (25-21, 25-20, 25-17) at Charlotte and 3-0 (25-19, 25-22, 25-20) at Louisiana Tech.

At Charlotte, FIU had a .415 hitting percentage and Lea Montavon led in kills with 13. Kiona McSwain had 35 assists. FIU held Louisiana Tech to a .122 hitting percentage and collected 60 digs.

 

October 11, 2014

Gameday VII: Wisdom of Age vs. Wiseguys

In FIU's four wins under Ron Turner, the Panthers pounced on 20 turnovers. That's five per game for those of you as mathematically short synapsed as Mike Russo (truly great reporter, very good writer, but the man can barely count change). Five turnovers a game. That's a lot. Two ways to look at that:

1. FIU's defense and special teams are among the nation's best at creating kiloton plays that swing a fight and crush opposing morale.

2. Five turnovers a game is a dicey way to thrive.

It reminds me a bit of organized crime wiseguys, the Henry Hills, the Jimmy Burkes, the guys like Lefty working under Sonny Red and Sonny Black. Maybe it's that I just watched the 30 for 30 documentary on the Boston College point shaving scandal that involved Hill and Burke. It's a throwaway line in GoodFellas, but a whole chapter in the source material, Nicolas Pileggi's book Wiseguy.

Anyway, street wiseguys must always hustle. They live off their schemes much as the Panthers live off their turnovers. Kids have to eat, wife has to dress, side chick needs to be taken care of and you can't give Tony Soprano or Paulie Cicero a light envelope come tribute time, when you pay up the food chain. So, they always have to have several schemes going -- loan-sharking here, extortion there, hijacking here, there, everywhere. Have a bad week? Bills still need to be paid. Points still need to be made.

In five games, Texas-San Antonio's thrown only six interceptions. The Roadrunners have fumbled only seven times and lost only one. Seven turnovers in five games, 1.4 per game. And, here's FIU forcing 3.5 turnovers per game this season, 4.2 per game in the last five games, 5.0 turnovers in the wins over the last two years and a defensive touchdown in each win this season.

That's the concerning statistical matchup today for the Panthers. If UTSA can keep the ball, can FIU produce enough offense and make enough defensive stops, especially in the red zone. If they need to, can the Panthers' pay the bills by getting a square job?

That's what UTSA wants to find out. The Roadrunners games don't feature much on special teams. Few turnovers either way. It's long-field offense vs. long-field defense both ways.

Maybe FIU keeps the cash stream of turnovers flowing and the Roadrunners, already on a four-game losing streak, sink into a depression.

You'd think having 20 returning starters and a national-high 36 seniors would shoot immunity to such emotions into UTSA. Only seven games left in your football lives, there's no point to spending much of it in the dumps. But this season's been disappointing already, particularly the last two weeks with a come-from-ahead loss to FAU and a face-plant against New Mexico.

UTSA's mental maturity didn't concern Turner as much as their physical maturity.

"You can tell seniors and juniors dominated," he said Tuesday. "And they've spent a lot of time in the weight room. They are very, very strong and very physical, both offensively and defensively up front and physical. Defensive line looks like Pitt up front."

That said, FIU moved the ball on Pitt, especially when going with the hurry up offense to make those big bodies move in the South Florida heat. The climate-controlled Alamodome takes away atmospheric help and forces freshman quarterback Alex McGough to run an offense in front of his first raucous college crowd. A gathering of 30,000 gassed up by day-long liquoring-up might be the Roadrunners best defense. UTSA's given up 7.3 yards per pass attempt, a 56.9 percent completion rate and allowed 41 percent of third downs to be converted.

What I wondered after that Turner description of UTSA's lines: would UTSA try to just buffalo FIU, as Pitt did? Look, only Pitt really stood up and pounded FIU's defense all game. You know the 411 on the decisive 4:11 of the Louisville game. The Cardinals scored FIU-style -- interception return, athletic cab-ride-long play, blown coverage big play. They didn't run the ball particularly well on FIU. Pitt ran the ball with big people slamming and pulling, leading the way for big-but-not-as-big ball carriers. They were Budweiser in the original Bud Bowl.

The Roadrunners I saw, against Arizona, didn't look much like Pitt. Turner said the same thing.

"They do a lot of shifting, a lot of motion, a lot of different plays and schemes," Turner said. "They're a veteran team, they should be able to do that."

But, he also said, "They're very efficient. Offensviely, put together a lot of long scoring drives. Unlike a lot of people in college football nowadays, who score in a minute and a half. These guys are averaging 3:30 scoring."

Why? Because they don't turn the ball over and are patient. That's what maturity does for you. FIU demonstrated offensive patience last week, a sign of growth in a young offense. And UTSA doesn't get turnovers -- only eight in five games.

If FIU sees this freshman quarterback Blake Bogenschutz today and UTSA stays with spreading the field, I say the Panthers feast just enough defensviely and land some monster blows offensively. Regular quarterback Tucker Carter's no Kolton Browning, but he won't give it up the way Bogenschutz would.

The Vegas crowd likes UTSA 27-17, 24-14, something in that area. It is tough to expect a young offense to have three consecutive solid performances without a diaper-filler in there somewhere. If I'm sitting in a sportsbook, I'd avoid this game like a Chinese food buffet without a sneeze guard. Watch it, don't bet it.

Very tough call. UTSA 24, FIU 13.

But that's one black-Irish-and-Native American man's opinion. I could be wrong.

TYMELL

Former FIU forward Tymell Murphy will work out soon for the Orlando Magic's NBA Developmental Leauge team. He's also got a workout scheduled for the Heat's D-League team. 

 


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