So my peers agreed with the coaches on Conference USA's Defensive Player of the Year. But they apparently agreed with me on the MVP and Offensive Player of the Year.
The Conference USA Media Association, the group of beat writers covering the C-USA schools, sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith and redshirt junior cornerback Richard Leonard to our First Team all-conference team and junior defensive end Michael Wakefield to the Second Team. I voted for Leonard as Defensive Player of the Year, but the majority of the rest voted for Marshall linebacker Neville Hewitt, who the league coaches voted that honor.
Our Offensive Player of the Year and First Team quarterback was Western Kentucky's Brandon Doughty and our MVP was Marshall running back Devon Johnson. Both got my vote, Doughty on the sheer weight of numbers -- 67.5 completion percentage, 4,344 yards, 44 touchdown passes -- and a brilliant performance in upsetting Marshall. You'll note we voted two Western Kentucky players to our First Team while the conference coaches didn't think an offense averaging around 44.0 points per game had an all-conference player.
That Marshall loss to Western also underscored how important the 243-pound Johnson was to Marshall's offense. Marshall's Big Johnson put up numbers almost as hefty as he is -- 1,636 rushing yards, 8.6 per carry, six catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns (3 for 79 yards and those two touchdowns against FIU).
And we voted Alabama-Birmingham's Bill Clark our Coach of the Year. Hopefully, it's as close as we'll ever come to giving an award posthumously.
Even with nine full time assistant coaches and some graduate assistants, even with a full reporting staff devoted only to chronicling football recruiting in a region where talent runs thicker than a Snickers, guys can get missed. Coaches tend to follow the best teams. Recruiting trackers tend to follow the coaches and the best teams.
That's how Edison safety Robert Knowles came into Thursday morning with no rating on any of the recruiting sites. Soon after 247Sports.com announced Knowles verbal commitment to FIU -- an actual BREAKING story as opposed to the BREAKING one that "announced" Central's Fermin Silva committed to FIU long after that had been reported -- a rating of three stars went up on the site. One of the sites ratings czars got around to looking at Knowles highlights.
I asked one of our guys about him. What I got back was that he hasn't seen Edison in two years because they don't play in many big games, but heard good things about Knowles.
If FIU gets Central's Anthony Jones, I wonder if they'd give him his first looks at wide receiver or running back. Jones starred at running back this year, but his recruiting position was wide receiver when Central stampeded people with Joe Yearby and one of Jones' cousins, Dalvin Cook.
For what it's worth, despite using different ways of ranking recruiting classes, the three sites I quote often all have FIU around the same place. Rivals.com has FIU fifth in Conference USA and 247Sports.com has FIU sixth. Scout.com has FIU eighth but does aggregate points total and is missing several verbal commits. All three sites rank FAU as C-USA's No. 1 2015 recruiting class based on commitments.
Kendall Rogers, now of D1baseball.com, reports that redshirt freshman lefthanded pitcher Chris Pelaez will transfer from LSU to FIU. Pelaez graduated from Florida Christian High.
Swimming & Diving, vs. North Florida, Wednesday, 11 a.m.
Women's Basketball, vs. Western Carolina, Saturday, 1 p.m.
Being the nation's most productive tight end got sophomore Jonnu Smith ignored when it came to The Mackey Award semifinalists and the Associated Press All-America teams.
Sports Illustrated's All-America selections, however, listed Smith first in the Honorable Mentions at tight end. Salut, Jonnu.
Smith won't be in line for a raise. But it'll be interesting to see how much the pool of assistant football coach money increases, if at all. Several coaches, including defensive coordinator Josh Conklin and offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler, have come to the end of their original two-year deals.
Maybe a little bit. You hate to say that because it sounds like you didn’t expect much. But you never know how a young guy’s going to respond. Once I saw them in training camp, I wasn’t surprised by what they did in games. Guys like Anthony Wint and Fred Russ and Treyvon Williams and Jordan Guest, those linebackers from day one were overly aggressive – “Guys we don’t need that late hit, this isn’t full contact.” That’s a problem you want to have. You can’t teach someone to be aggressive, but you can teach them to be smart about. (Safety Demarkus) Perkins was playing with that attitude in camp.
(Defensive end Michael) Wakefield, unbelievable motor. Goes full speed all the time. (Defensive end) Denzell Perine, another of those guys with a great, great motor. They got a little bit bigger, stronger in the offseason. They stepped up. I think that affected all the other guys on the defensive line. Giovanni (Francois) stepped up and started to show the same kind of motor that Wakefield and Perine showed. It was contagious. The norm was for them to play hard with a great motor. It was great to see.
(Linebacker) Davison Colimon, he’s a guy with great motor. He was a totally different guy this year. Colimon played great football for us. He played with great intensity both on defense and special teams.
What do you plan to do about your punting situation?
Find somebody, hopefully. Terrible. Jose (Laphitzondo) stepped in, the first time he’d ever played and did the best he could do. Chris (Ayers) has a good leg. He just hasn’t been able to put together, stay healthy, punt with confidence. But we’re looking. We’re looking for guys out there as well. I don’t’ know if it’ll come from within, but we’re looking at guys on the outside as well.
The problem is you don’t have a lot of scholarship spots. It’s hard to give one to a punter you don’t have here or one to a kicker because they’re so hard to evaluate. But we’ve definitely got to get better. The field position that cost us...we’re going to go back and chart, but it’s just…we’ve got to get better.
What about Luke Medlock? (an All-State punter in high school)
He’s got a chance. We worked him at a lot, early, especially. But he was just too inconsistent. But he’s got a chance. He’s got a strong leg, so he’s in the mix. He’ll be there along with Chris, Jose and (kicker) Sergio (Sroka) wants to try punting as well. We’ll give anybody (a chance).”
What players who have eligibility remaining do you not anticipate coming back?
(Quarterback) EJ (Hilliard) is not coming back. I don’t anticipate (wide receiver) Dominique (Rhymes) returning. (Wide receiver) Richard Burrows, he’d be a fifth-year guy and you’re not going to bring him back for a fifth year. Other than that, I don’t know. There’s a couple of guys I’ve talked to…we’ll see. People think that because the guy’s a fifth-year of eligibility, he automatically comes back. No. They’ve got to want to come back and we’ve got to want them to come back. That’s not just here, that’s everywhere.
What do you see you need to beef up in recruiting?
Overall depth. Every position we need to bring guys in. Playmakers, speed is one thing we’ve got to get. And playmakers aren’t always speed guys (DJN digression: the Hall of Fame wide receiver nicknamed “The Playmaker,” Michael Irvin, wasn’t a speed guy). Speed guys and or playmakers. We’ve got to continue to get them, whether it’s offense, defense, whatever.
We lost six senior offensive lineman. We brought in a really good freshman offensive lineman class last year. So we’ve got to continue to keep those numbers up where they are. That part is going well at that position. Offensive line and defensive line, you’ve always got to recruit numbers and get depth. To me, we’ve got numbers and good players, guys that we really like who are committed. We’ve just got to hold onto them.”
How has recruiting changed this year as opposed to last year, especially locally?
Last year, I thought our guys did a really good job of recruiting. The reception we got out there was good. I think it’s even better this year. I think people are seeing what we’re doing. Every high school coach I’ve talked to are seeing what we’re doing and seeing the strides we’re making, seeing what our guys are doing off the field as well as on the field and in the communi9ty and how they’re playing. I’ve had several coaches say “It’s night and day difference when we watch on the field this year than last year.” We’re basically full on our commitments. We’re actually getting guys calling us who were committed elsewhere who are asking “Do you still have scholarships available?” That’s a positive.
Do you plan to reach out to any of the Alabama-Birmingham kids, who are now free to go anywhere?
We possibly could. We’ve talked about it as a staff. There might be a couple of positions, offensive line, defensive line, if they’ve got some guys who have eligibility remaining, I don’t care if it’s one year, three years, whatever. Yeah, it’s something we’d look at. First of all, I think it’s a sad, disappointing thing. I feel so bad for those players. Watch that video of the team meeting. It’s a bad, bad deal. Those kids go there and – I look at our team room and I see how hard our guys work and everything they’re doing. The trust they put in us. And to see it pulled out from them like that without any warning. I look at the coaches, they went there a year ago, Bill Clark and his staff. I don’t know Bill really well, just from meetings and playing them. He seems like a really class, good human being. To see him go there a year ago – everybody talks about the head coach, but you’ve got a staff, nine full time assistants – and to have it all pulled away, it’s a sad deal.
On one hand, you almost feel like a vulture if you go in and take those guys. On the other hand, those kids want people to come in and recruit them because they want to play Division I football. We are going to take a look at it and see if there are guys we have spots for. We don’t have a lot of spots unfortunately – and if it’s a good fit. I spoke with Bill Clark this morning. It’s just a tough, tough deal. Those kids are going to go somewhere. So, we’ll get in the mix, try to help them. And, help us.
Any staff changes?
I hope not. I love our staff. I think we’ve got everything exactly where I want it right now. I couldn’t be happier with them. There will be no changes on my part. You never know what’s going to happen. Jobs open up, guys come calling from bigger conferences or the NFL. I told the guys, “You have something you’re interested in, someone contacts you and it’s better for you and your family, I’m 100 percent supportive and I’ll do what I can do to help you get it. But I really want everyone to stay. And I’ll do what I can do to try to get you to stay.”
(DJN: According to USA Today’s assistant salary table, FIU spent $1,065,400 on assistants last year, fourth in Conference USA behind UTEP, North Texas and Middle Tennessee State)
It’s hard to get a staff together, nine full time coaches and four graduate assistants that everybody gets along. Egos usually get in the way and you have some issues there. We have zero. We have a group of guys who are not afraid to express their opinion, talking about what they want to do. At the end of the day, if we decide “this is what we’re going to do” whether it’s a defensive scheme or offensive scheme or how we’re practicing, they’re 100 percent behind it. The personalities on the staff and how they get along could not be better, as good as I’ve been around. I think our players have a lot of confidence in our coaches and know our coaches care about them as individuals, not just winning games. And they’re all doing a really good job of recruiting.
Facilities-wise, what’s the next thing you’d like to see?
Grass practice field. That’s something I’ve been talking to the AD (Pete Garcia) and to the President (Mark Rosenberg) about. It’s going to happen at some point, I’m not sure when. Just the wear and tear of that (points out the office window to Ocean Bank Field) takes its toll a little bit. It’s not mandatory that we get it, but it would be nice if we get that.
Other than that, they’re doing a good job, they’re committed to a lot of stuff. Other than that, there’s not a whole lot. All the players I’ve gotten in here, I ask every one of them, I ask one-on-one, “Do you have any issues? Any concerns? Do you have anything you’d like to see done better?” Every once in a while, somebody will say, “Well, the food…” But they say that in NFL camps when they’ve got gourmet food coming in. Other than that, they’re happy with the support staff, happy with the academic staff, happy with our medical staff.
We’re putting in a little player lounge for them which I think they will enjoy. Somewhere they can do to relax a bit. We’ll try to get some things like that done. We’re not at a competitive disadvantage within our conference in any area, so…
What did you think when you saw the massive donation at FAU and what FAU’s planning?
What’s FAU planning?
They just got a $16 million gift from the Schmidt Family Foundation toward a $45 $50 million facility that’s supposed to have an indoor practice facility, academic center, weight room, etc.
I didn’t know anything about that. Good for them. The thing we have to do is make sure we’re not at a competitive disadvantage in our conference and teams we’re playing. Hopefully, we’ll continue to upgrade our facilities. I don’t think we need to do a whole lot. We’ve got pretty good facilities here. Obviously, there are some things you can do every year.
I think all that stuff is good, but what sells recruits more than coming in and seeing a nice locker room and this and that – I think our facilities don’t take a back seat to a lot of people, but the thing that kids and their parents are most impressed with is the people. Obviously, it’s nice to have great locker room, great everything for them to come to, but the bottom line is the people. If we get them on our campus and they get around our coaches and they see what kidn of people we are, they get around our players. We have a very good chance of getting htem. Last year, on our visits, we had one weekend where we had 20 kids visit. And we had 19 commit to us when they were here.
Turner said the season captains were voted as Michael Wakefield, Richard Leonard and center Donald Senat. The game captains changed weekly, save Wakefield.
“As coaches, we talked about it every Monday. I’d say, ‘OK, game captains this week” and they would nominate some guys. Every time, somebody said, ‘Wakefield” it would be ‘OK, it’s going to be Wakefield and Richard’ or ‘Wakefield and Perk’ or ‘Wakefield and somebody.’ By the second half of the season, we didn’t even say his name, we’d just say ‘Wakefield and who else?’ Based on work ethic, performance the week before, doing the right things. We tried to get at least one offense, defense, special teams.”
Swimming & Diving, vs. North Florida, Wednesday, 11 a.m.
Before we get to my postseason chat with football coach Ron Turner, cleaning up a couple of things:
Upon The Herald sports gods realizing the writers schedule as written left the No. 15 men's basketball team in the country uncovered last Saturday, I got switched from FIU women's basketball Saturday night home game against Central Florida.
Maybe that helped. While the men's team in Coral Gables fell to Wisconsin-Green Bay and the David J. Coverage Voodoo that's wrecked the Panthers, the Dolphins and FIU, the women's team picked up its first win of the season by upsetting UCF 66-57. The most important statistic in the game wasn't FIU's three players in double figures, led by Taylor Shade's 18, or Kiandre'a Pound's double double (15 and 11), but UCF's 31.9 percent shooting from the floor and 13 turnovers. Previously, the Panthers' defense should've been sponsored by Sun Pass because it doesn't slow anybody down either.
Also, big ups to senior forward Quentin Albrecht for his First Team All-Region selection.
Now, to the other football.
A week and a half after FIU finished its 4-8 season, I sat down with Ron Turner for something of a postmortem. Though it's no "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "Fingertips" or "Keep On Truckin'," I decided to go multipart with this one.
You said a few weeks ago, even if you don’t make a bowl game, the season is a positive, you’re moving forward. After a while to ponder, do you still feel the same?
I think there’s a lot of positives, a whole lot of positives. I think we did make progress. We didn’t win as many as we wanted, as many as our goal was. We did make tremendous progress. Not only in what we did on the field, off the field. Establishing the attitude, the culture, the togetherness, the bonding in the locker room that we want. It’s not where we want it, but it’s very, very close. It’s 100 times better than the year before.
We won four games and we lost four by three or less. There’s no consolation there because we’re in here to win those games. But the next step is we’ve got to learn how to win them. I’ve been in this before. I’ve been in turnaround programs and it doesn’t happen overnight, unless you take over a team that’s got no off the field issues and is a really good team. It was a total rebuilding. We took the steps the first year. Didn’t show up on the field. But as far as establishing our identity, establishing who we are, what’s expected of them, I thought we made great strides this year. The next step is to learn how to win these games. It reminds me a lot – and I’ve told some of the players this – when I was at Illinois. We went 0-11 my first year. We went 3-8, the next year, we had some close games. And then we we went 8-4 the next year, including a bowl win down here. Just because it happened there doesn’t mean it’s going to happen here. But I’m excited about where we’re going. I’m excited about the future. We’ve got a ton of guys back. We lose some seniors who were some good players, but not very many of them. We’ve got guys behind them who can step in and be every bit as good of players. They just need experience.
I’m excited. I’ve been meeting individually with every one of our players. I’m probably three-fourths of the way through the roster right now. There is a ton of confidence right now, a ton of energy and enthusiasm because they know what we have coming back.
Look at the production we have coming back, and I went over this with the team as a positive. Look at our returning production on defense – 77 percent of our solo tackles are coming back, 80 percent of our assisted tackles, so, overall, 78 percent of our tackles. Tackles for loss, 85 percent coming back. 85 percent of the guys who made tackles for losses. 79 percent of our sacks. 82 percent of our quarterback hurries. 86 percent of our interceptions. I’m rounding off here a bit. 86 percent of our interception return yardage. Pass breakups 79 percent. Whatever category I’m talking about defensively, a high high percentage of it is coming back.
Offensively, you look at the rushing yards – 99.7 percent of our rushing yards are coming back. 100 percent of our rushing touchdowns. 99.6 percent of our total carries. 86 percent of our passing, 93 percent of our passing touchdowns. Same with receiving – 85 percent of our receptions, 74 percent of our receiving yards all the way across the board, we’ve got a lot of guys coming back. Special teams, all of it’s coming back. 100 percent of our kicking, not that that was very good, and punting, 100 percent of that’s coming back -- not that that was very good, we’ve got to get better there. Almost all of our return stuff. We know who that was and he’s coming back.”
You’re sure Richard Leonard’s coming back?
Nothing’s 100 percent. I’m confident he’s going to come back. We’re doing a lot of research. I’ve talked to him and I’ve talked to his parents. I told them, "Richard, I honestly want what’s best for you. If you’re going to go in the first or second round, the third round, go. No question about it. If you’re not, you’ve got to make a decision."
I’ve talked to quite a few GMs, I’ve talked to a lot of personnel people. I told them I would do that. They have a thing you can do with the advisory committee, I’ve done the paperwork for that. So they’ll give us a projection of where he’s going to go. If you’re going to go in the first second, maybe the third round, go. If not, the consensus is to stay in. I’ve talked to several GMs, several personnel people, they’re watching film. Some have gotten back to me, several more will get back to me, based on what they see on film. Besides the advisory committee, these are guys I know, I trust and they will give me an honest evaluation. It depends what it is. But I think he’s coming back. If not, then we’ve still got a lot of production coming back.
Offensively, a freshman quarterback, two freshmen running backs, a guy who hadn’t played in a couple of years at running back, not always a recipe for success or improvement. Even with all those things hampering you, how much more had you expected to see out of your offense this year (last in Conference USA again)?
I expected to see more, especially in the passing game. There are reasons why – we’ve got a true freshman quarterback. But I think he’s a very good true freshman quarterback.
Receiver-wise, I was a little disappointed we didn’t have anyone step up and do what I wanted to do. We were shuffling a lot of guys in there. I didn’t like doing that, but no one really stepped up, took it and made it clear, ‘I’m your guy.’” One guy, the next week, somebody else is in there. That’s very hard on the quarterback to establish continuity. Ideal situation, "here’s our top five receivers, here’s who we’re going with. One guy gets hurt, you put somebody else in there." We didn’t have that. I think that hurt.
Offensive line-wise, we got better as the season went on, especially the running game. The second half of the year, we ran the ball pretty well. We just couldn’t complement it with the passing game. Part of it was protection. Part of it was the receivers. The whole thing never really clicked. The passing game part of it, we’re not even close to where I envision this offense being. I’m not calling many games like I want to call them. There’s things I might have in mind to do that I can’t do. I probably said the same thing last year. This year, wasn’t to that same degree for other reasons. Still, there were some things I wanted to do I saw was there, we just weren’t able to capitalize on them. I think we’ve got things in place. We’ve just got to execute at a higher level.
With Christian Alexander enrolling early, is Alex going to enter as the No. 1 guy or will you say “everything’s open again?”
Both. First snap we get of spring ball, Alex is our starter. If someone’s going to win the job, they’re going to have to beat him out. I’ve got a lot of confidence in Alex. I think he can be a very, very good player, especially when we get help around him. He’s got everything you look for. He’s got some things he’s got to work on. When he gets more confident in the guys around him and what we’re doing, those things he needs to work on will improve. So he’s going in as the starter, but I told him when I met with him and I told the other two quarterbacks we have on the roster (freshmen Bud Martin and Luke Medlock) and I’ll tell Christian the same thing when he comes in in January: I want them to come in with the mindset that they’re competing for and going to win the job. And if they do, the job will be theirs. I told Alex the same thing. He’s got to go out there ready to compete.
I tell these guys all the time, that’s how it is in life. Just because you do something one year, somebody else comes in and does a better job, they’ll take your job. So, you’ve got to maintain your edge and compete. Christian will come in, he’ll be right in the mix. He’s a guy we’re excited about. He’s a high school senior right now, so you don’t know how he’s going to respond.
Where do you expect to find the wide receiver or the wide receivers that’ll make a difference on this offense?
I think Dennis Turner’s going to be a really good player. He shouldn’t have played this year. He’s a true freshman, weighed 160 pounds on a good day. Late in the year, he started to come on. The last two weeks of the season, maybe three, he looked like the guy we thought he was as far as playing with confidence and running fast. I’m talking about in practice. It didn’t always show up in games because he didn’t have opportunities. But I think he has a chance to really good. I think Thomas Owens has a chance to be good. He’s big, physical, strong receiver with great hands. He’s got to work on his speed. Work on techniques in getting off press coverage. But he’s big and strong and got an unbelievable knack for timing it to go up and catch the ball over people. Even though he’s never going to be a speed guy, he’s got a chance to be a good player. He and Dennis will compliment each other well.
Clinton Taylor’s got a chance to be a good player, in the slot, especially. He came on late in the year. We probably should’ve used him more than we did. But we were so comfortable using (sophomore tight end) Jonnu (Smith) in that slot and using him. But I can see Clinton coming on and definitely being a factor. De'Andre Jasper has some good ability. I think he can help us. Juwan Caesar who redshirted this year, a transfer from Michigan State, 6-5, 218 pounds. I saw him today about a half hour ago, I said “Don’t get too big. Unless you want to go to tight end.” And Akil Dan-Fodio can be a guy who was a tight end, but more of a slot tight end. Can pick up some slack in that part of the game as well.
I’m leaving some guys out, who I think can step in and, hopefully, take the next step. Plus the guys we’ve got committed, we’ve got recruited. I think those guys will have the ability to contribute right away.
What do you need more, possession guy or stretch guy?
Stretch guy. Need both, but we need a speed guy, we need a big play guy. I’m hoping Dennis will give a bunch of that, I’m hoping Juwan will give us some of that. In recruiting, we’ve got to bring in at least one guy who can do that. We’ve got a couple of guys who can do that who are more the slot or possession type guys, but they’re very, very good. We’ve got our eyes on a couple of speed guys who I think we’re going to get.
The individual player I’m asked about most often is Jasper, who came out of high school as a speed guy, scored on a reverse as a freshman and ran back kickoffs well. What does he have to do to get on the field more?
He’s got ability, no question. I’m hoping he can take that next step. I think it’s just a matter of adjusting to Division I football and competing at a higher level. He’s got ability. We’ve got to make sure we do a good job and probably do a better job of putting him in positions, utilizing him and giving him some more opportunities to compete and show what he can do. We’re going to make a concerted effort to do that more this spring with he and Clinton.
The 2006 Miami Dolphins stumbled off the line, got their bearings just in time to tumble off the cliff to a 6-10 finish. During this verse in the Dolphins Decade of Disappointment song, they went to Chicago and spanked the previously unbeaten eventual NFC champion 31-13. They also shut out New England 21-0 and got Brady benched in the fourth quarter. Both featured superstar performances by defensive end Jason Taylor, who ended the season with 13.5 sacks; two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns; forced 10 fumbles and recovered two.
Taylor won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. Whatever your favorite cliche phrase -- "impact player" "game changer" -- Taylor personified it that season. It was a reminder that great players and great individual seasons, particularly defensively, can happen on mediocre or bad teams.
I covered that Dolphins season for The Herald. I was reminded of it as FIU cornerback Richard Leonard sent plays boomeranging back at opponents this season until offenses just figured they'd just play elsewhere. I had no doubt Leonard should be named Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year.
Wednesday afternoon, the conference announced Marshall linebacker Neville Hewitt received the award as selected by the conference coaches. And I say to the 13 Conference USA coaches as a group:
I've enjoyed talking to you. I respect that you know 78 times more football than me. Most of us don't even see most of the game that you watch naturally.
But you got this one wrong.
I didn't get Western Kentucky scoring points like that kid that sure plays a mean pinball yet you guys not finding a single First Team all-conference offensive player on their roster. And, I don't get this.
Leonard led Conference USA with four fumble recoveries (0.33 per game, which is how the conference ranks), finished second with five interceptions (0.42 per game) and tied for fourth with 12 passes defended (five interceptions, seven passes broken up).
His three defensive touchdowns came in FIU's first three wins of a four-win season. The Pick Six against Alabama-Birmingham tied that game with FIU's offense imitating a tractor pull and his later interception set up a field goal in FIU's 34-20 upset. Oh, he also made a fourth-and-1 stop on Escalade-sized Jordan Howard.
Leonard’s biggest lightning bolt landed, appropriately, after a two and a half hour lightning delay against FAU. With the Panthers up 17-10 in the third quarter but FAU about to score, Leonard scooped up a fumble in the end zone and ran it back 100 yards. Though more than a quarter remained, during which Leonard would intercept a pass in the end zone, that siphoned all the power from one sideline to the other. FAU waned while the Panthers waxed strong in a 38-10 win.
Even after quarterbacks began avoiding Leonard like The Triangle after dark, he proved too omnipresent to avoid entirely. He said he was surprised he didn't get more work against Marshall, against which he had an interception anyway with a potential game-turning long return truncated by a penalty.
I'm not going to rip Hewitt. I watched a number of Marshall games this season and he sometimes demanded my attention. Against FIU, two sacks were among his six solo tackles and eight total tackles. I think Hewitt benefits greatly from being part of a defense that was, statistically, the conference's best (20.8 points per game, 351.8 yards per game).
But I will say this: if you're going to use team performance in selecting an individual award like Defensive Player of the Year, shouldn't you take into account that the defense gave up 59 points in regulation, then a touchdown and two-point conversion in overtime to lose its goal of an undefeated season? Even as Old Dominion skated up and down the field on FIU, Leonard interrupted things with a fumble recovery that he returned into field goal range.
The coaches-selected All-Conference USA team put a Marshall player at each level on the First Team defense and along the line and linebackers on the Second Team. If that's valid and the Marshall defense is so loaded, why isn't there a greater statistical variation between The Herd and FIU? The Panthers allowed four more points and 12.0 more yards per game than Marshall. FIU finished third behind conference title game participants Louisiana Tech and Marshall in total defense and second behind Marshall in scoring defense.
Maybe a superior individual season?
Also, it's not as if Leonard wasn't a significant part of a pretty good defense, too: 5th nationally in red zone defense (he had two fumble recoveries and an interception in the red zone), third nationally in turnovers gained (he had nine of FIU's 33), tied for the national lead in fumbles recovered (Leonard had four of the 19).
Teams win games. Teams win championships. Individuals win awards. This year's Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year award should've gone to Richard Leonard.
But that's one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.
FIU made out about as followers would expect on the All-Conference USA teams announced Tuesday. Certainly, the Panthers don't have an apoplexy-causing beef the way, say, Western Kentucky does (over 50 points six times, 59 offensive points in regulation against Marshall and Old Dominion each, zero First Team all-conference offensive players).
Predictably, redshirt junior Richard Leonard made First Team Conference USA at cornerback with five interceptions, two returned for touchdowns, a fumble return touchdown among his conference-leading five fumble recoveries. Leonard also got the First Team nod at punt returner, the only player to make all-conference at two positions this season, and some Honorable Mention love at kick returner. I'd think he'd be the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, which will be announced Wednesday.
Sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith joined Leonard on the First Team. Sacks and tackles for loss leader Michael Wakefield was named to the Second Team, as voted by Conference USA coaches.
On the Honorable Mention list: fifth-year senior center Donald Senat, junior defensive end Denzell Perine and freshman linebacker Anthony Wint.
Wint's one of three A's -- two Alexes and an Anthony -- that make up FIU's contribution to the conference's All-Freshman Team. FIU, Marshall, Louisiana Tech, Texas-El Paso and Western Kentucky each placed three players on the team.
Quarterback Alex McGough played in every game and started all but the first game.
Running back Alex Gardner led FIU in rushing before missing the last four games with a shoulder injury.
Wint started the first six games and was second on the team in tackles, missed four with a knee injury, then returned to shore up FIU's run defense in the final two games.
The death of football at Alabama-Birmingham after a season of resuscitation brought the expected reaction from those looking to be first to Next: who else will dump football because it costs too much?
And then the many of the same people late in realizing FBS college-affiliated football is a business began looking at college-affiliated football programs as a business exactly like NFL franchises. Which is, of course, just as facile and foolish as looking at college-affiliated football as just another extracurricular activity.
So, they see a place like FIU, crowds like this year's Senior Day gathering...
...and assume the school will take a hard look at following UAB's lead.
Pshaw. If you want a good look at the business of football, especially at the mid-major level, check out this piece. Learn the economic reason why many schools like FIU, to quote Bear Bryant, do love the football.
I talked with head football coach Ron Turner for about 45 minutes Thursday about the 2014 season and 2015 prospects. Nothing that'll register on the Richter Scale in the manner of 1964 Anchorage, Mike Richter or Pat Richter, but a few tidbits:
*Turner expects cornerback Richard Leonard to forgo the NFL Draft to return as a fifth-year senior. He said if Leonard got analyzed as a third-rounder or better, he'd encourage Leonard to enter the draft.
*Turner talked with Alabama-Birmingham coach Bill Clark Thursday morning. He said FIU might try to pick up some of the UAB players left without a program after UAB football's death on Tuesday, particuarly if there are any offensive or defensive linemen he feels can help FIU.
*There won't be any coaching staff changes initiated by him.
*He's happy with FIU's facilities, although he would like a grass practice field and he thinks that's in the works.
I'll transcribe everything over the next couple of days and post it here.
FIU gets to find out about itself quickly, hosting Tennessee Feb. 13-15 in a three-game set to open the season. The Volunteers went 31-23, 12-18 in the Southeastern Conference last season.
Other schedule highlights include a three-game series at FAU, April 10-12; a season-closing three-game series at defending Conference USA champion Rice; a first home conference series against Charlotte Mar. 20-22.
Men's Basketball, vs. Kennesaw State, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.
If we're to believe the noise from the media around That School Up North Near Del Boca Vista, tomorrow FAU will further differentiate itself from FIU by announcing a massive donation to the athletic department, the largest in school history. According to the story by the Sun-Sentinel's Nate Taylor, the gift will fund a new athletic facility that'll be primarily used by the football team. It might even include an indoor practice facility.
Huh. Why don't we have announcements like this from FIU athletics? Clearly, there's a giving spirit among those who love FIU. The rest of the university's as festooned as Mount Sinai hospital with major donor names. The last similar announcement I can recall concerned a donation from Judy Blucker, the mother of FIU women's sports and one of the university's early pillars, and her partner Annette Gathright. They're leaving FIU a $1 million gift in the form of a dual life insurance policy that'll endow scholarships for female athletes.
When I talked to FIU athletic director Pete Garcia almost three years ago, he said FIU's youth as an athletic department with a football team meant its massive alumni base still needed to get used to ponying up the dollars necessary to be a top flight football program.
Looks like FAU's alumni base got used to it. And you can bet the Woodsys' new facilities will be shown off to recruits along with FAU Deep In Debt Stadium. Then, for those recruits FIU wants also, the Boca Boys' will contrast their new toys with the more modest facilities of their public school cousins down in Miami-Dade.
At least FIU will still have a football program. The University of Alabama Board of Trustees, with Bear Bryant's son essaying the Mr. Potter role, reportedly will kill Alabama-Birmingham's football program.
This is the same board that blocked UAB's hiring of Jimbo Fisher before Fisher went to Florida State and blocked the building of an appropriately-sized downtown stadium for UAB football. That kept the Blazers rattling around Legion Field, a massive, historic stadium now as depressing as the surrounding underclass neighborhood. A stadium version of a once-mighty senior citizen now fighting collapse, Legin's upper deck was condemned and amputated, yet it remains too large for a UAB.
Oh, they'll speak the hooey about athletics undergoing the same campus-wide long-term strategic planning the rest of the school is. Hogwash. That football program spent much of its existence being treated like an underfunded Cinderella. This happens as first-year head coach Bill Clark, some kind of prince for not blasting his employers for dashing his and his players' immediate futures, got UAB to bowl eligibility with Saturday's win against Southern Mississippi.
Conference USA doesn't want you in the club if you can't bring some football. UAB and its nice basketball history will get shunted off to some non-football conference. C-USA will search for a replacement.
Georgia State? It's in Atlanta and C-USA does like schools in or near major markets.
Louisiana-Lafayette? Lou-La brings strong fan support and talent in many sports, especially football.
South Alabama? The other end of the state's version of UAB in Legion Field: South Alabama in Ladd-Peebles Stadium. But South Alabama's not under the University of Alabama Board of Trustees' thumb and has otherwise suitable faciliities from what I saw there two years ago.
Anyway, it's a sad day considering what UAB accomplished this year. Well, sad for about the 22 seconds until schools consider those on that talented roster with eligibility remaining will be free to sign anywhere else and can play next year.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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..."