I knew Mario Cristobal flew into Atlanta last night. According to what former FIU commit Brett Sheehan, a Suwanee (Ga.) Collins Hill quarterback, Cristobal was in the Sheehan home last night.
Clearly, he didn't know he was about 12 hours from "former FIU head football coach" Mario Cristobal.
"Very puzzling," he said Wednesday afternoon by phone, his low, halfting tone of voice screaming of his surprise.
He ran through the summary of FIU football when he arrived -- coming off 0-12, an APR among the worst in the country, about to get slammed with a 30-scholarship punishment and go on five years of probation.
"In four or five years, we quickly put FIU on the map nationally," Cristobal said. "We gave FIU an identity. We went to two bowl games, won a conference title, beat a BCS opponent. The importance of getting into Conference USA was emphasized and we helped do that. It's obviously puzzling and shocking after a year when we had so many critical injuries at key spots and close losses."
Cristobal said he's already getting calls about other jobs. "Obviously people recognize what we've done as a program, one of the better stories over the past couple of years."
He didn't want to say much more. But anybody who knows Cristobal, who looks at his career, realizes that what kept him at FIU was the kids he recruited and that he's 305. He didn't want to move his family from here. And I do know that even as this season spun out, he didn't regret the decisions he made last December (Pitt) or February (Rutgers).
By the way, Carol City's Simeon Thomas, a 6-3 2013 commit that was part of what looked like an excellent haul of defensive back recruits, said on Twitter he didn't know if he was still coming to FIU.
This afternoon, I asked Garcia what if, two or three years down the road, FIU remains at three-to-five wins a season after he makes what many see as a bold move in firing Cristobal. What does that mean for his job?
"I'm held accountable for everything in the athletic department," Garcia said. "My job is to make sure the entire athletic department is headed in the right direction. Right now, I didn't think the football program was headed in the right direction. It's my job to hire a coach that will make us competitive year in and year out and successful. Success is going to bowl games and having winning seasons. That's how our coaches are evaluated and how I'm evaluated."
If that's not the case, he said, "Then I've got to be held accountable."
Garcia hired Richard Pitino nine days after firing Isiah Thomas last spring, although Garcia insists he didn't know Pitino was available when he fired Thomas (see my posts from back then for commentary on that). But Garcia said he hasn't talked to anyone about the job yet, though his cell phone is being blown up, and the timetable is to have a coach in place by the time classes resume on Jan. 7. That leaves one month before signing day. He won't, he insists, speed up the process if it means settling for a candidate on which he's lukewarm.
Garcia has a pal named Butch Davis who needs a job and knows how to recruit in South Florida and to South Florida. And I'm not a fan of personnel or coaching moves to please a fan base, but there needs to be a juicing of excitement about the football program, both in paid attendance and booster bucks because it's the only thing close to a revenue sport FIU has.
Now, as far as the money to pay a name coach...Cristobal worked relatively cheap for the job and the market, making a base salary of $453,183 (various bonuses pushed that over $500,000). According to Cristobal's contract, FIU now owes him $906,366 if he doesn't get a job next season. If he does, FIU owes him one year's base salary plus a pro-rated amount.
Texas A&M paid FIU $500,000 to get out of its commitment for a game next year and FIU's saving the $500,000 they won't pay A&M to come down. The Maryland game gets them another $500,000 or so.
On the field, FIU might lose Collins Hill (Ga.) quarterback Brett Sheehan, one of FIU's first 2013 verbal committments, who had a stellar year. Sheehan retweeted a Scout.com report that quotes him saying he's decommitting from FIU in the wake of Cristobal's firing. Sheehan's rated at two stars by Scout, Rivals and ESPN.com.
SWIMMING & DIVING
I'd planned to spend today writing about how Johanna Gustafsdottir went from being a fat (by swimming standards) burnout victim to an owner of half the FIU swimming record book who feels very much at home in Miami.
As it turns out, my only break in Cristobal coverage is to tell you that Sonia Perez was picked as Sun Belt Swimmer of the Week and junior Sabrina Beupre as The Belt's Diver of the Week.
Perez won the 400 Individual Medley at the Mizzou Invitational setting a new school record of 4:12.95 That and her school record 500 freestyle time of 4:50.32 were among four Sun Belt-best times this season she reeled off at the meet. Beaupre placed third in both the 1-meter and the 3-meter competitions at the University of Missouri-hosted meet.
FIU fired head football coach Mario Cristobal after six seasons Wednesday, the last of which was a 3-9 season after FIU was the preseason favorite for the Sun Belt title. FIU heads into Conference USA next season.
"It was based on going 3-9 this year with 30 seniors and what was supposed to be his best team," FIU athletic director Pete Garcia told The Herald. "He's done a very good job for this program, but we've gone backwards over the last year and a half. Over the last 22 games, we've gone 8-14."
That's a reference to FIU's record after a 3-0 start in 2011 that included wins over eventual Big East champion Louisville and defending Conference USA champion Central Florida. This year, Garcia said, FIU's wins were over 1-11 Akron; rebuilding FAU; and South Alabama, in their first year of FBS competition.
Garcia can be temperamental and his relationship with Cristobal the past few years could be called "strained," if you want to be very generous. Cristobal several times made public reference to not being fully aware of the coming NCAA sanctions when he took the job. Also, sources at Camp Mitch said Garcia told a group of boosters before this year's regular season game against Troy that, though this season hadn't gone as planned, changes would be made after the season. Upon hearing that a week or two later, Cristobal almost exploded. His worry wasn't for himself, but for his assistants, who he felt it was his province to handle.
But I don't think Garcia swings a wrecking ball without plans for the next building. Butch Davis is a name, just as Isiah Thomas was a name and even Richard Pitino is a name (a last name, at least). Davis and Garcia go back a ways. Garcia said he hasn't talked to Davis or anyone about the job.
This comes 12 months after FIU played in its second consecutive bowl game in only its seventh year of FBS play and in the fifth year after Cristobal took over a NCAA sanction-ridden program that had gone winless in 2006. The team went to bowls in 2010 and 2011 after 6-6 and 8-4 regular seasons, the only two regular seasons at or above .500 in FIU's 11 seasons. That earned Cristobal attention from the University of Pittsburgh after the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Rutgers was ready to hire Cristobal in February. But he chose the current happiness he and his family experienced living on South Beach and working near the neighborhood where he was raised.
Cristobal's overall record was 27-47.
This year, FIU wasn't helped by losing starting quarterback Jake Medlock to injury, forcing true freshman E.J. Hilliard to start three games against bowl teams and play the second half against Sugar Bowl-bound Louisville. FIU lost two games on last minute scores and another in overtime. Starting running back Kedrick Rhodes spent most of the season with two sprained ankles.
Still, when Medlock was healthy, offense rarely proved to be a problem compared to defense and special teams, expected to be the backbone of a team that received Top 25 votes in the preseason coaches poll. Those two units failed spectacularly with several fumbled returns, three missed extra points, three bad punt snaps leading to two opposing touchdowns and a safety and the defense ranking 67th in total defense and 90th in scoring defense despite returning 21 of 22 on the two-deep roster from the No. 16 scoring defense in 2011.
Senior defensive end Tourek Williams came on late in the season to earn First Team All-Sun Belt honors, as did senior safety Johnathan Cyprien. Senior offensive tackle Caylin Hauptmann was Second Team All-Sun Belt.
Coaching's scramble season, when Sun Belt coaches get fired or hired elsewhere, is in full swing this week.
For the second consecutive year, Arkansas State lost a coach to the SEC, Gus Malzahn heading to Auburn. Wisconsin's looking for a head coach after Bret Bielema went to Arkansas, opening up a Big Ten job.
The rumor mill has churned out Mario Cristobal's name as a possible candidate for the South Florida job. Despite the coaching staff's role in FIU going 3-9, this isn't surprising. As I alluded to in a post several weeks back, most athletic directors and coaches look at FIU's season and think, "Been there." Cristobal's stock, at a peak a year ago, hasn't gone Enron.
But his stock is common compared to the preferred of Western Kentucky's Willie Taggart, who turned his college alma mater from bumbling to bowling and went to high school at Bradenton Manatee. Manatee High coach Joe Kinnan, who built the school into a muscular state power during the 1980s and is an influential football voice over there, reportedly endorsed Taggart for the USF job.
By the way, South Florida was paying Skip Holtz around $500,000 in base salary. They'll need more than that to get Taggart (other opportunities or can stand pat) or Cristobal (makes around $454,000 in base, living in South Beach, working in his old neighborhood), although last year showed money to be no god to Cristobal. He got some extra in the extension, but more money went to be spread among assistants and for use in day-to-day football operations.
As for whether or not Cristobal would jump across the state after flirting with Pitt and jilting Rutgers at the altar last year, it's more likely than him going to either of those. He's a 305 guy and South Florida's only a four-hour drive away.
On the weekly Sun Belt coaches conference call, head coach Mario Cristobal said "we forsee him being able to go" as far as starting quarterback Jake Medlock and this week against Louisiana-Monroe.
Medlock left FAU Stadium with his left arm in a sling after getting thrown down on that shoulder in the fourth quarter. He remained in the game until the end. It seems as if every other game, Medlock leaves the field with some part of him dragging. Cristobal thought it was because his season-ending shoulder injury last year prevented Medlock from building physical durability in the offseason.
ULM opened as a five-point favorite at most books and is now up to six.
Well, that tripped into Bizarro World. Or, maybe, as it involved Men of Owls, Earth 2 (Earth 3 for you Silver Agers).
The maligned defense that couldn't rush the passer the first half of the season with cattle prods got four sacks for 25 yards in losses as it set an FIU record for fewest rush yards allowed, minus 12. But even discounting the sacks, FAU would've had only 13 yards on 15 carries, still undercutting the previous record of 28 yards allowed to FAMU in 2005.
The special teams that had brought only heartache came up huge. An offensive tackle ran for a touchdown on FIU's most effective non-Jake Medlock running play of the first half. An FAU touchdown recalled John Mackey's Super Bowl V tip drill. A security guard gets his leg snapped on the sideline. Lightning delay.
"It's been a weird season, man. I don't know if the football gods or...who knows?" said senior safety Johnathan Cyprien, who had an interception, several chilling hits and played with a special ferocity.
Hyperbuoyant FIU players toted boxes of postgame Popeye's to the buses near 1 a.m. Saturday. With all that's happened this season, they know that the trophy so many touched on the way out for the game would remain at their school for at least the next several years.
Quarterback Jake Medlock exited the locker room with his left arm in a sling. He got slammed down on the left shoulder late in the game and trotted to the sideline with his upper body doing the Crip Dip to the left. There's only one game left. What's the difference between 3-9 and 4-8? Nothing to you and me. Everything to players and coaches.
FIU came into the game knowing FAU tended toward man coverage and, as Cristobal said to me earlier this week, ran defenses that shut down typical spread plays. So, it was almost infuriating watching FIU bang its head obstinately into a stone wall on first and second down runs in the first half, putting themselves in tough third down scenarios that let FAU come at Medlock heedlessly. At halftime, offensive tackle Rupert Bryan had 5 yards rushing. That put him only one behind Kedrick Rhodes (6 on eight carries) and ahead of Darrian Mallary (4 on two carries). Cristobal said after the game they had to keep FAU honest.
Medlock was eight of 12 for 170 yards in the first half and nine of 16 for 94 yards in the second half.FIU called one run on the 11-play drive to the Times touchdown that gave them a 27-17 lead in the third quarter and one on the first six plays of the drive to the 34-24 lead.
On that sixth play, Medlock got his helmet yanked off. That meant he had to leave the game for at least a play and FIU wasn't going to have freshman E.J. Hilliard come in cold to throw on second and 7. That's why Rhodes' 31-yard run on that play was the most Ours Are Bigger moment of the night. Everybody knew Rhodes would get the ball. A squashed run would leave FIU facing third and long up only 27-24 at the edge of kicker Jack Griffin's Maybe range. But the line muscled a hole on the left side and Rhodes steamed on through to the FAU 6. After that play, you let the line and Rhodes finish it out and they did.
The FAU touchdown that closed the gap also fit into the unusual. Linebacker Winston Fraser leaped to tip a pass, usually a good play, but one that had a two-pronged negative effect. No. 1, it deflected the ball away from a good interception chance and, No. 2, it cast Fraser as Mel Renfro to FAU freshman Jenson Stoshak's John Mackey (Stoshak even wore No. 88).
That type of 60-yard touchdown often ignites one team while torching another. Not this time.
Most of that first half passing yardage came on the opening, 99-yard drive that should've been a hint to open things up sooner. Jacob Younger got behind the corner on a streak up the sideline for 46 yards on FIU's second play. When a guy with mediocre speed does that to a corner, the buffet is open. At the end of that drive, right as I was thinking, "They need to get the ball to Willis Wright," they did and Wright showed why. Yeah, he was wide open, but he bounced off one bad tackle attempt and then treated freshman cornerback D'Joun Smith like, well, a freshman. As Wright stiff-armed, then dragged Smith into the end zone, it reminded me of a big brother trying to leave on a date and telling his little brother, "Come on, man, stop playin', I've got to go."
The night's biggest counterpunch, Richard Leonard's 100-yard kickoff return, also counts as a "feel good" moment. Leonard's troubles this season in pass coverage and on returns have been well-documented, moments that turned games against the Panthers. But this electric play, on which Leonard sprinted through a serious hole -- "we saw they had a weakness on the right side and we took advantage of it," he said -- the fastest Panther was the catalyst of positive change.
Leonard averaged 22.7 yards per return on his other three kickoff returns against what had been the Sun Belt's best kickoff coverage team. And his one punt return went for 13 yards. He should get serious consideration for Sun Belt Special Teams Player of the Week. Leonard also gets to run his mouth with FAU's No. 3, redshirt junior Keith Reaser, another Killian grad with whom Leonard's tight.
I felt bad for freshman Jeremiah McKinnon, one of FIU's better special teams players this season, when the FAU punt bounced off his helmet and the Owls recovered. Either Wayne Times didn't do a good enough job of giving McKinnon a heads up or McKinnon didn't hear him. Whichever, at least the defense rose up to hold the Owlmen to a field goal. Previous lost fumbled punts -- against Duke, Akron and Louisville -- turned into touchdowns.
Rupert Bryan's touchdown was beautifully constructed. The alignment indicated a power run, probably to the left, as did Wright coming in motion to the left and pausing in the H-back spot. If a canny defender was of a mind to look for the counter run right, at the snap, Medlock moved to his left as if on a run-pass option. Then, just before being dragged down, he threw back and to his right.
Back...and to the right. Back...and to the right. Important because the play being a lateral meant Bryan didn't have to report as an eligible receiver. He's just a ball carrier. Bryan claimed he hadn't run the ball even in high school, but he knew what to do near the goal line -- put his head down and let momentous bulk buffalo him into the end zone.
As Deion Sanders once said narrating a lineman run, "Winter's coming and big men need love, too!" Bryan got some on SportsCenter as one of the Top 10 Plays of the Day.
SWIMMING & DIVING
CollegeSwimming.com ranks FIU 15th among the nation's mid-majors, the program's best ranking ever. FIU next hits the pool Nov. 29 at the Mizzou Invitational.
Tonight’s pregame blog is sponsored by the letter E. My needle’s laying there. Might have to bring a colada with me to Boca Friday night.
A few things about FAU: Pelini’s a defensive guy and the Owls lead the Sun Belt in pass defense for conference games. Now, part of that is that they’ve had only 156 passes thrown on them, the fewest in The Belt and almost 10 percent less than second fewest Troy and Middle Tennessee. After all, they’re eighth in rush defense (guess who’s last). But the Owls also have allowed only 52.6 completion percentage. Second best is Western’s 57.1.
FAU’s last three Sun Belt games: a 37-34 overtime loss at South Alabama, where FIU needed its best half of defense this season to hang on to a win; a 34-27 home win against Troy, which came from 16 down in the second half to nip FIU, 38-37; and a 37-28 home upset of Western Kentucky, against which FIU’s managed five field goals the last two years.
That’s better results than FIU against the same opponents -- in the same places, for two of them – for a team with less raw talent and experience.
Particularly intrigued by the wins against Troy and Western, I checked them out as best I could. FAU outscored Troy, which had Corey Robinson at quarterback instead of Deon Anthony. FIU might’ve preferred facing Robinson’s experience instead of Anthony’s feet and a the Ken Anderson arm he leased for the day. Whatever, the point is there wasn’t anything special there.
But 37 points on Western? They moved the ball somewhat on the Hillbillies, 355 yards. Quarterback Graham Wilbert got hot on an 84-yard drive. But they also had two touchdowns set up by interceptions; a fumble return touchdown off the last second desperate hook-and-lateral attempt; a touchdown after a 48-yard punt return; and a long field goal after a failed Western fourth down at the FAU 43.
FIU head coach Mario Cristobal described FAU’s defense as one that plays a lot of man coverage. That explains the trouble Western had with FAU’s pass defense – quarterback Kawaun Jakes can’t throw downfield. FIU’s Jake Medlock can.
Cristobal also said FAU takes away some of what the spread really likes to do. At Sun Belt media day, Pelini was confident he’d be able to scheme well against the spread. Running back Kedrick Rhodes isn’t good for a whole game. I’m not sure what sin of Jeremiah Harden has gotten him buried on the bench. Darian Mallary’s wearing down. Perhaps Medlock’s mobility’s improved after a couple of weeks to rest a body with more dents than a rambunctiously driven taxi.
FIU’s been getting to the quarterback lately and, despite Graham Wiltert’s being tough to topple at 6-6, FAU’s given up 17 sacks in conference games. Only FIU’s given up more. Also, Wilbert’s on a string of 214 passes without an interception.
Give FIU an intangible advantage for coming off a late season bye, but only slightly because FAU’s got to be feeling good about itself after taking out Western last Saturday.
FIU’s started quickly the last few games, getting big plays downfield to Willis Wright, Glenn Coleman and, against South Alabama, Jacob Younger. I see something similar here. And if the Panthers get up, they’ve got to keep strafing. They didn’t need to be so extremely Bo & Woody in the second half against South Alabama. For some reason, I’m also feeling a big kickoff return, though FAU’s had the Sun Belt’s best kickoff coverage in conference games.
(Late in the season, I like to use the conference games comparison – generally measures games against similar competition and the games tend to be more recent.)
I’m thinking FAU moves the ball through the air. Three long touchdown drives. But FIU gets a fumble somewhere, maybe giving the Panthers a short field. FIU gets points off of it so long as that’s not where their lost fumble (trends say there will be one) occurs.
If it comes down to the kicker, throw up the hands. Not in the “It’s good!” signal, but more in the “I have no idea what’s going to happen.” Neither FIU’s Jack Griffin nor FAU’s Mitch Anderson (six of 10) can claim Volvo reliability these days. Anderson’s shown more length this year.
Feeling 34-31, FAU. But, that’s just one black man’s opinion. I could be wrong.
FIU lost 3-1 to Western Kentucky during the regular season, the only Sun Belt match that Western didn't win 3-0.
The Panthers didn't fare as well Thursday in the Sun Belt conference tournament, getting zapped by the Hillpeople 25-12, 25-12, 25-19. FIU ends the season at 10-19.
FIU opened Sunday as a 5.5-point favorite over South Alabama and is now down to 3.5 or 4 in most places, despite the news that quarterback Jake Medlock would play Saturday (which Mario Cristobal reiterated on the Sun Belt conference call Monday). The over/under, which started at 51, has gone up to 52.5.
South Alabama, 2-6 overall, is in its first year of FBS (nee Division I) play and fourth season as a program. Recently, USA lost by 36-29 to Arkansas State, beat FAU in overtime and lost 38-24 to Louisiana-Monroe in its last three games.
"We've gotten better the last three weeks and a lot of that's due to our offense getting better," South Alabama coach Joey Jones said on the Sun Belt conference call. "We struggled offensively earlier in the year. We were rotating quarterbacks. We've gone with one quarterback and that's really lhelped us. Our defense has been playing pretty good most of the year."
In a Sunday night text message, FIU coach Mario Cristobal said quarterback Jake Medlock is "good to go." Then, on the weekly Sun Belt coaches teleconference, Cristobal reiterated that Medlock practiced with no problems Sunday and would play Saturday against South Alabama.
Medlock left Saturday's game with a jacked up throwing hand and a hanging left shoulder. The team practiced Sunday, will have Monday off and return to practice Tuesday.
Several years ago in Las Vegas, I made a late night trip from my room at The Venetian down to the blackjack tables. I was there for a few hands of even play, then got one on which I split aces. With what the dealer had showing, this should’ve been two hands of collecting chips. Instead, I got a push on one hand and lost the other. When the cards start going that way, I knew what to do. I immediately got up from the table and called it a night.
When bad things happen to fishermen while working an area, they’ll hang in for a bit before declaring the area has “bad juju.” They leave the area and, hopefully, leave the bad juju behind.
Unfortunately for FIU, the Panthers can’t metaphorically get up from the table when a dependable kicker becomes as reliable as Antonio Cromartie’s birth control. They can’t leave the area when their long snapper starts sending skipping stones back to the punter.
They can’t just shut it down when they get what they want and still don’t get what they want.
For the third consecutive week, FIU’s sitting on a Sunday, shaking their heads at a loss that they feel shouldn’t have been. Compound it now with looking at a future possibly without quarterback Jake Medlock, depending on how badly his right hand and left shoulder were injured on the final drive. Tough kid. Maybe too tough for his own body.
FIU wanted to get up early on Western Kentucky, hit them with a couple of big plays. And, they worked one to perfection, wide receiver Wayne Times going in motion to the right, taking the backward swing pass from Medlock, suckering Western’s secondary up and launching deep to Willis Wright. You knew Times would underthrow Wright – the last thing the passer, especially a stand-in passer, wants to do to a receiver that open is overthrow him – yet Wright still was a stride from the end zone when Western’s Jonathan Dowling stripped him from behind. Good play? Yep. Was Wright holding the ball properly? Tough to tell from my angle. Huge play?
That set the tone for the night. FIU would get what it wanted, then fail to take advantage.
Almost as big was Kedrick Rhodes fumble at the Western as he tried to gain a couple of extra yards at the Western 17.
FIU could’ve easily been up 10-3, 10-0, 14-3, 14-0 in this game. Unlike Middle Tennessee and Troy, Western doesn’t have the kind of offense that’s built to come from two touchdowns behind. They got some runs from Antonio Andrews especially when FIU failed to set the edge, and quarterback Kawaun Jakes made two completions over 20 yards. Overall, though, FIU kept Western from finishing drives. Western held the ball for 33:21, but had only 289 yards of offense and one real scoring drive. FIU kept Andrews from grinding out consecutive runs despite his 158 yards rushing on 27 carries. The Panthers kept Jakes under pressure and underperforming. Mr. Passing Efficiency looked like Mr. Just A Guy again. Jakes came in having thrown only four interceptions in seven games. FIU got one and came near a few others. He came in completing 70.1 percent of his passes and completed 66.7 percent. He averaged 12.1 yards per completion and FIU held him to 9.1.
FIU got what it wanted on defense. It even stuffed Western on a fourth and millimeters when the Hilltoppers inexplicably (OK, stupidly) eschewed a quarterback sneak for the first and ran fullback Kadeem Jones on a quick hitting line plunge. The interior defensive line took that extra second to get a great push inside and before Jones could find anywhere else to go, senior safeties Chuck Grace and Johnathan Cyprien were all over him. That stop at the FIU 3 kept the Panthers in the game instead of being down 14-3.
They gave up, really, one scoring drive…but launched that drive and kept it alive with the kind of mistakes you just can’t have. The kickoff got blown when Jack Griffin had to stutter step while the ball started to topple. That caused A) a lousy kickoff and B) an illegal formation penalty on Griffin that got added to the return. Western started just 53 yards from paydirt.
They had the drive stalled – or at least Western looking at a tough fourth down – when Jakes overthrew Rico Brown on third and 6. Problem was, just before the snap, senior defensive end Tourek Williams did the offside cha-cha. And this wasn’t one of those, free-play-high-risk throws. Jakes blew the throw on his own. Instead of going for it on fourth and 6, Western converted the third and 1 with a play action 20-yard lob to tight end Jack Doyle.
And Western would’ve gone for it, just as they ran some half-baked draw play on fourth and 4 from the FIU 28 in the third quarter. Maybe FIU could’ve held Western to no points. Maybe the drive continues, but with No matter what Western coach Willie Taggart Tweets, he clearly has no confidence in kickers who haven’t been allowed to make a field goal attempt beyond 36 yards and longest made field goal is 27 yards. Somebody should tell Willie there’s a pretty good women’s soccer team at Western. Go find himself a kicker.
Not that FIU’s feeling thinks of Griffin as Prudential these days. He made two Saturday, from 29 and 39, but missed wide left from 40. Valuable points in a defensive struggle. At least he didn’t blow an extra point for the third consecutive week. (OK, he didn’t get a chance…)
But long snapper Mitch McCluggage did blow a punt snap for the second straight week, leading to an opposing touchdown. Three bad McCluggage punt snaps, the first three of his career, have led to 16 opposing points this year. And that was a huge score, the one that put Western up 14-6. At the end, instead of one final, futile play for the end zone, FIU could’ve lined up Griffin from the right hash mark for a 38-yard, game-winner. No lock, but even as erratic as he’s been, Griffin’s odds of hitting from 38 beat the odds of E.J. Hilliard coming in cold and hitting a 21-yard pass against the Sun Belt’s best defense.
Speaking of that defense, which got its ninth sack on that final play…Medlock did what got Wesley Carroll benched last year: held onto the ball too long too often. Western sat on some of the quick stuff FIU wanted to throw and when that wasn’t open or Medlock believed it wasn’t open, here came the deluge.
“He’s trying, he’s a young quarterback, but you can’t hang onto the ball, not against a defense like that,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “If it’s not there, you’ve got to tuck and run. You can’t hang back there. That protection is not designed to sit back there.”
The FIU bench drew two flags. One was on Cristobal and, whether he earned this one or not, I wasn’t surprised – mounting frustration with the Sun Belt officials this season, years of him being quickly hot and off the bench to protest calls, I’ve been waiting for that flag to fall. Call it a lifetime achievement flag. The other time, an official claimed he ran into an FIU coach.
It’s that kind of year. With three hands left to play before FIU can leave the table.
As FIU limits defensive tackle Isame Faciane's snaps over the final four games, those snaps will be taken up by redshirt freshman Cody Horstman, freshman Fadol Brown and freshman Darrian Dyson. Others who should see increased playing time are freshman Davison Colimon at linebacker; freshman fullback Lemarq Caldwell; and redshirt freshman Lars Koht. Freshmen De'Andre Jasper and Nick England already have been in light rotation at wide receiver.
Add offensive linemen Trenton Saunders and Edens Sineace, a couple of Palm Beach County young men, to the redshirt list.
"They're pretty good players, but offensive linemen, you'd like to get them in the 400-pound bench, 550-pound squat range," FIU coach Mario Cristobal said.
I'd put this in the comments, but, for some reason, my attempts to sign into the comments section now fail miserably. So, guess I have to put it here: chiapanther, that's the obvious question to ask of Orlando. And it'll be first out of the box.
Going into today's final round of FIU's 35th Annual Pat Bradley Invitational at Lakewood Rance Golf & Country Club, Daytona State's Mary Dawson leads after shooting a tournament record 67 in Monday's second round. Dawson's at an even 144, one ahead of FIU's Sophie Godley. Tania Tare and Meghan MacLaren are tied for fifth with Boston College's Katia Joo at 3-over 147. Jasmine Wade's in a five-way cluster at 10th, 7-over 151.
FIU leads the team standings by 14 shots over Boston College and 15 shots over Cincinnati.
Quarterback Jake Medlock, still in uniform, walked across the open locker room door with a coldly incinerating stare. Mario Cristobal came out to meet me and the reporter from the FIU student paper looking drained of energy, words and happiness, like someone who had just gone through 15 rounds of spilling emotions with their spouse.
But it was senior running back Darian Mallary who verbalized the mood after victory teased FIU all game long, then tauntingly jilted the Panthers like so many Poindexters for the men of Troy.
“Every week before the game, we think, we can change it, it’ll be different,” Mallary said. “It seems like every week, at the end of the game, it’s the same thing. And nobody understands why because we worked so hard. We don’t understand. Why is it going like this? What’s going wrong? It’s tiring. It’s really hurting. We’ve just got to figure something out just to win a game. Let’s focus on the next opponent and try to win one game.”
Mallary was one of many FIU parts and players that had But games as in “(he/they) really did this well, but…” Mallary ran for xx yards, picked up his ninth touchdown and showed, right now, he’s a better short yardage back than Kedrick Rhodes. Rhodes injuries have taken a quarter step off his backfield dancing turning it, in dancing terms, from James Brown to White Man’s Overbite.
But it was Mallary who fumbled after a 9-yard fourth quarter carry into Troy territory. FIU’s defense held the Trojans to a three-and-out, but up 37-35, any points there would’ve changed greatly the final minutes. Mallary had ripped off an 11-yarder the previous snap. Another first down, positive yards after that and kicking with the wind, senior kicker Jack Griffin would’ve had a decent shot (hey, not like it’s an extra point, right?)
I asked Mallary the last time he fumbled.
“I know it wasn’t in college. I think the last time I fumbled was semifinal in state, my senior year,” he replied. “Me fumbling, I didn’t see that coming for 1,000 miles. But it happened. I have to get over it. It hurt. This game right here, I put it all on my shoulders. I just don’t understand.”
It’s axiomatic that when teams lose close, everybody thinks of the one or two plays they didn’t make and wonder if that was the difference. Mallary thinks of his fumble. Griffin thinks of his blown extra point. Maybe Medlock was thinking of the interception he threw, a terrible decision and worse throw up the right sideline to Rhodes, who was covered, out of bounds and was decelerating out of the pattern as Medlock cocked. The next play, Troy quarterback Deon Anthony almost as foolishly, made a reckless deep pass into double coverage that’ll surely be on the mind of senior cornerback Jose Cheeseborough. Cheeseborough got two hands on the ball, but couldn’t complete the interception. Troy scored three plays later.
Sometimes, it’s doing that little extra that makes the difference. Troy linebacker Brannon Bryan made the aforementioned Medlock interception. But he also made a little noticed play in the second quarter as Glenn Coleman caught a deep slant route. Just as Coleman shifted up through the gears, Bryan got a piece of Coleman’s jersey. It slowed him just enough for Troy’s Chris Pickett to make the tackle. Without Bryan’s effort, that’s not a 28-yard gain on a drive to a field goal and 24-14 FIU lead, but an 87-yard touchdown and a 28-14 FIU lead.
Maybe Coleman’s thinking of that play. Once again, he and Willis Wright put the boom back in FIU’s offense. Troy’s safeties bit on the run early and often. Wright and Coleman feasted. Medlock didn’t miss the passes that Western Kentucky’s Kawaun Jakes bumbled against Troy.
Then, there’s the undisciplined penalties. Illegal shifts, etc. I didn’t see the Fadol Brown personal foul that nudged Troy from second and 7 on the FIU 20 to first and goal from the 9. The late hit call on Sam Miller on the biggest play of the game-winning drive was a predictable flag even if the hit on Shawn Southward wasn’t any more damaging than a typical knock-‘em-out-of-bounds bop. Here’s what coaches call “hidden yardage:” Southward should’ve been stopped about 10 yards earlier. He broke through a pack of Panthers, went toward the sideline, then Miller came in with the lateness. If the tackle gets made when it should’ve been, Southward’s stopped inbounds after 15 to 20 yards plus there’s no late hit penalty. Instead of a 27-yard gain augmented into 42 yards by the penalty and the clock stopped, it’s less than half that with the clock still moving. Troy was out of timeouts, remember.
The entire defensive front seven has to wonder what if they make a few more tackles on Troy quarterback Deon Anthony? A sack instead of a hurry, a 5-yard gain instead of a 14-yarder. Cristobal credited Troy’s blocking and Anthony’s athleticism, but said at some point, FIU’s got to get off the blocks and make a tackle. Still, hard to fault the defensive line/pass rush when they got four sacks, a number of quarterback hits and a Miller blitz induced Anthony into a dumb, desperate throw that Johnathan Cyprien intercepted.
Still, a little extra, a little more on a play could’ve been the difference.
Anthony’s a better passer than I thought. Some of his throws in the 7-10-yard range couldn’t have been made any better, perfect placement and zip. Actually, perhaps his worst throw was the one far enough behind Chandler Worthy that it was a lateral. So, when Worthy dropped it, it remained a live ball for Justin Halley to scoop and race off to FIU’s first defensive touchdown of the season. That happened in Game 8 this year. They had two after Game 3 last year.
I wasn't unhappy with the decision to run the ball on the third and long after Troy used its last timeout. Medlock had cooled off and some of his decisions were ehhh. Better to keep the ball inbounds, keep the clock rolling, get a few yards and try to pin Troy deep with them going against the wind. Which is exactly what happened
In the end, the offense put up 31 points and 428 yards of offense, but failed by producing zero points over the last 26:39 of the game and turning the ball over twice, once to set up a touchdown. On special teams, Josh Brisk punted well and pushed Troy back when he needed; and the kickoff return set up a touchdown with Richard Leonard’s 68-yard kickoff return. Special teams also set up a Troy touchdown by botching a punt snap. And then there’s that extra point. The defense got an interception, a fumble return touchdown and four sacks, but allowed a 69-yard drive to the game-winning field goal in 57 seconds by a team with no timeouts.
Good performances…just without that winning extra from anyone -- players or coaches.
When Google Maps reminded me the drive to Troy from my hotel was twice as far as I thought, over two hours, there was no way I couldn't think of this...
Senior wide receiver Jacob Younger will be OK after getting injured in the fourth quarter Saturday FIU coach Mario Cristobal said Monday. But the condition of running back Kedrick Rhodes and his right ankle remain up in the air for this week. Cristobal said FIU's situation makes no difference as to how they handle Rhodes' injury.
Cristobal also said they'll redshirt freshman wide receiver Johnnie Durante; linebacker Josh Glanton; defensive lineman Marques Cheeks; and defensive end Leonard Washington.
When several FIU players slammed Benny Cunningham out of bounds on Middle Tennessee State's penultimate offensive play, Cunningham suffered a left knee injury that Middle coach Rick Stockstill expects to be confirmed as season-ending. For a true fan of football, it was a sad way to see the night end for Cunningham after he ran for 230 yards (previous FIU opponent record: 227 yards by Pittsburgh's Ray Graham in 2010) on 36 carries (previous FIU opponent record: 34 by Troy's DeWhitt Betterson in 2003). It was his second 200-yard game in the last three.
Stockstill was asked if he thought the hit was dirty.
"I don't think so," Stockstill said. "I don't think there was anything malicious. It looked as though he slipped, got off balance and got hit."
From my point of view from the press box, which on the east end of FIU Stadium’s south side, between the 5-yard line and the goal line, Willis Wright got into the end zone. Wright didn’t make it as all those Middle Tennessee defenders slammed onto him, but as he writhed in their grasp, I kept watching the ball and thought I saw the ball break the plane.
Also, from my point of view, it shouldn’t have come down to that.
Whether through ineptness or not being inclined to give a break to a departing school, Sun Belt officials shouldn’t be relied upon to give FIU a break. Then again, they did turn a blind eye to what several of us saw as a block in the back on Wright’s 49-yard catch-and-run earlier in the game. And I’m not the only Florida resident in the press box who thought Glenn Coleman came down with one foot out of bounds before getting the other foot down inbounds on the 32-yard sideline catch preceding Wright’s 30-yard touchdown that put FIU up 30-27.
Quick digression: notice how FIU’s big play offense, limited to cameos this season, materialized when Wright and Coleman materialized Saturday? They combined for eight catches, 224 yards and two touchdowns. Coming into the game, Coleman had one catch for 8 yards. Wright had six for 108. Each has shown inconsistency in practice and games. Both committed “arrrgh”-inducing drops again Saturday – Wright had a third down scramble throw from Jake Medlock go through his hands on the drive to his touchdown -- but both made up for the goofs. Especially should senior wideout Jacob Younger be hurt badly enough to be limited next week at Troy, it’ll be interesting to see how much playing time Saturday earned Wright and Coleman. Put either with Wayne Times, who bailed Wright out on the third down drop by getting open on fourth down, and freshman De’Andre Jasper and you’ve got a possession guy (Times) with a speed guy (Jasper) and a big, physical guy who can be either (Wright/Coleman).
Jasper’s 26-yard end around touchdown, by the way, was such an excellent call, half the offense could’ve started playing tunk and Jasper still would’ve scored. Once he got the ball going left, only one Middle defender remained with any kind of angle and that defender faced a snowplow of Panthers. I know I call out the coaches on questionable play calls, but that was a great one, well executed.
FIU lost this game in the same way it’s lost too many games this season, defense and special teams. FIU lost control of this game in the same places – the final minutes of the first half and the early minutes of the second half.
The offense couldn’t have been more dominant in the first half. The difference with Medlock in at quarterback, even though he wasn’t a serious running effect on the option, is the difference between lube and no lube – everything just moved so much more smoothly. It’s no surprise. E.J. Hilliard’s young, Medlock’s been practicing at this level for three years.
Actually, the offense could’ve been more dominant – the opening drive fumble aborted what should’ve been a 3-0 or 7-0 lead. That fell on a bobble by Kedrick Rhodes, something much less likely to happen to him if he’d been a healthy, regular participant this season.
Still, FIU took a 20-3 lead with 1:39 left in the half after butt-kicking 15-play, 72-yard drive to a Darian Mallary touchdown. That missed extra point after the first touchdown? Hey, what did it matter? Middle Tennessee had only 135 yards of offense for the half on 30 plays, 52 yards on 12 plays in the second quarter. FIU even sacked Logan Kilgore twice, two more times than he’d been sacked in Middle’s first five games.
This is when FIU allowed Louisville to walk down the field to a game-tying touchdown. This is when a touchdown bomb-lost fumble-field goal-blocked field goal touchdown turned 20-14, Duke with 3:30 left in the half to 37-14 Duke at halftime. This is when an interception on a why-are-you-throwing-with-the-lead-and-a-freshman-QB-from-deep-in-your-end-with-less-than-90-seconds-to-halftime play turned into an Arkansas State touchdown and 14-10 halftime lead.
And, Saturday, this is when they blew it. A 33-yard pass down the middle to running back Benny Cunningham followed by a 20-yard pass to Anthony Amos for a touchdown on two of their earliest downfield throws of the night. Granted, FIU’s surprising pass rush – somebody put the mad juice in Tourek Williams, who was destroying Middle’s tackles – took the downfield plays away much of the first half. But how do you let the Cunningham play happen in the secondary? And Sam Miller didn’t have bad coverage on Amos. But Miller was, in the words of Lt. Bogomil’s post-climax lie from Beverly Hills Cop, present only as an observer.
That would be a repeated theme for Miller and Richard Leonard Saturday. So many times, FIU defensive backs were in position to swipe at the ball, grab an arm, yank a foot, poke an eye, yell “Drop It!” do something to prevent a catch and huge gain, yet didn’t. Also, once again, you see why FIU’s recruiting defensive backs over 6-feet. Yeah, Jeremiah McKinnon did the same in a couple of spots, especially that 28-yarder to Christian Collis before Middle’s last touchdown, and he’s a big, long cornerback. He’s also a true freshman, in his fourth or fifth game getting regular defensive snaps.
Anyway, a 20-10 halftime score feels much different than 20-3, no matter what any of the Panthers say. Look what’s happened after the aforementioned late first half scores against FIU. Duke took the second half kickoff and, essentially, ended the game at 44-14. Just like Louisville took Miller’s fumbled punt after FIU got a three-and-out to start the half and took a 21-14 lead. Just like Arkansas State took a punt and drove to a touchdown and 21-10 third quarter lead.
Saturday, Middle took the second half kickoff and drove to a touchdown: 20-17.
After Wright’s touchdown, put FIU ahead 30-27, the Panthers got tagged with an excessive celebration penalty that followed the letter of the law. I’ve found that penalty to be ridiculous at any level of football, especially levels below the NFL. You want to tell young people, emotional by nature, to be cool after a huge play in any game in which they’ve invested so much time, pain and feeling? Silly. This is supposed to be what separates high school and college football from the NFL. Also, have a sense of the game. A wild contest like that with a touchdown like that, to me, officials should have a little discretion. You can keep them from dogpiling in the end zone without acting like Daddy No Fun and Mommy Serious.
That said, FIU committed the penalty and had to serve it on the kickoff. The kickoff would be from the 20 into the wind. No chance for a touchback, FIU’s best defense After the game, I asked Mario Cristobal if he considered squibbing the kickoff. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the squib unless a) you’re a bad kickoff coverage team or b) they’re a very good kickoff return team. Middle’s the latter, one of the nation’s best. My figuring during the game was they hadn’t had a big one yet, you know it’s probably going to happen, why tempt fate? Their best shot at getting into field goal range would be a big return.
Cristobal had a good answer.
“They moved their guys up so much,” Cristobal said. “We looked at it from the side to see if we could (squib) to see if we could pooch it. Either one of those gives them position at the 50, just about. We just figured we’d put our best guys in there, starters at respective positions and do our best to put them on their side of the field. Make them at least drive 30 yards before they had a shot at a field goal. They had the wind at their backs so I’m sure anything under 50 would’ve been something they attempted. Missing an extra point hurts you because at the end of the game, they’re playing for a tie instead of having to score a touchdown to win the game.”
Also note this game that FIU didn’t fritter away timeouts in either half. Had they done what they usually do, the last play to Wright wouldn’t have even been possible because they would’ve gotten to the last drive with no timeouts.
FIU coaches must be popping Maalox like Tic Tacs over punt returns. They put Wayne Times, their most sure-handed punt returner back there, and he fumbled Saturday. FIU recovered, but still, it kind of says how this season’s going for the Panthers.
Both quarterback Jake Medlock and running back Kedrick Rhodes had far more hop than hobble Wednesday as compared to Tuesday. Mario Cristobal said "they've got a chance to be ready for Saturday," a better chance than they had Tuesday.
If I had to wager the next paycheck, I'd say both play. Then again, I thought Rhodes would be in better shape for Louisiana than he was, so...
Between injuries such as Mike Jean-Louis' hamstring and more minor ouches hampering guys who are playing (plus most of those guys just aren't getting it done), expect to see more freshmen among the wideouts this week. That includes De'Andre Jasper and Raymond Jackson, but also Krop graduate Johnnie Durante and maybe even Adrian Jenkins.
SWIMMING & DIVING
FIU's first home meet of the season, Friday against Houston, has been moved up an hour to 5 p.m. at the Biscayne Bay campus.
Quarterback Jake Medlock practiced Tuesday. Not much and, watching him come off the field as we waited to talk to Mario Cristobal, you could tell his mobility registered somewhere midway between Normal Medlock and Normal Fred Sanford.
Cristobal dismissed the idea of giving underclassmen more playing time, even if the goals of a Sun Belt title or bowl bid disappear, although he did say at this point in the season, you usually see some of the freshman raise their game to earn more playing time.
The Vegas books that have this game on the boards like Middle Tennessee by 3. I'm sure a number are holding it off the boards until Medlock's situation gets settled one way or the other.
Senior goalkeeper Kaitlyn Savage earned her second Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Week award for her 16-save performance in a 1-1 tie with North Texas.
Seymour Lieberman died Monday morning, having hung onto this plane of existence one more NFL Sunday and almost to the finish of the Major League Baseball regular season. Despite the Giants losing to Philly and the Jets getting skunked at home, I absolve them of all blame for Sy's Monday metamorphosis. I never saw him get upset when one of his New York teams or his school, Michigan, wasn't up to snuff. He loved the games, no matter the sport, for themselves. He was a pioneer in market research who, during my time covering the Panthers/NHL, loved to needle me that I covered the one major sports league that had never been his client and the one that was also the least successful.
In ways you don't know, he's affected what you see in sports, news media and advertising and how you see it. He's into the ground now having lived a very good life in most senses of that phrase. Salut, Sy.
Now to tonight's FIU-Arkansas State game, to be covered by Andre Fernandez.
ASU got plowed by Western Kentucky last week. That's what Western does. That's what FIU did reasonably well until last week, when Lou-La squashed FIU's run game and exposed the freshman parts of E.J. Hilliard's current game. Hilliard stared down receivers occasionally and took just a hair past deadline to make some decisions. He looked a little like Jake Medlock playing the RC's last year, which is to be expected. Well, he looked like Medlock against the RC's if Medlock worked without much help from receivers, offensive line, running game...
Ryan Aplin's name always reminds me of "apple pie." Because I love apple pie. And maybe also because Aplin treated FIU's defense last year the way I treat Epicure's apple pie the days after Thanksgiving. I don't see him scrambling the way he did last year. FIU's pass rush hasn't been strong enough to make anyone leave the pocket. But he could throw for 300 yards, the way FIU's been leaving receivers more uncovered than Rollergirl. Receivers have found the soft parts of FIU's zone this year as easily as I find McDonald's locations.
This game could show FIU's team maturity around Hilliard and mental toughness. They're 1-4, but still only 0-1 in the Sun Belt. Surprise wins have sprouted from plenty of teams not called "FIU." Still, this isn't the SEC.
I'm still not sure that'll be enough tonight. Arkansas State 38, FIU 24.
But that's just one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.
Those on the "Fire Cristobal" wagon need to stop whining like a bunch of Jag-driving, helicopter-parent-coddled wussies told they have to fly commercial instead of private.
This is a disappointing season for FIU, highlighted by the repeated failure of what everyone -- from inside and outside -- expected to be the team's bedrock. No question that questionable coaching, bad coaching and mistakes made by experienced players from whom you'd expect better mark this season thus far. Now, they're sallying forth with a true freshman (and don't bring up Teddy Bridgewater's freshman year by comparison. Same high school, good friends, not the same player as they started college. Period).
And this makes FIU school No. 103 in the history of Division I-FBS football to see an unexpected kink in an upward achievement curve. It's happened in every program with almost every coach who's enjoyed more than a shot glass of success, especially those trying to build or rebuild programs. If this sinks into a trend, that's when you start looking at the euphemistic "going in a different direction."
This is one season after two bowl seasons for an 11th season program. Get over it.
After winning medalist honors at the Wolverine Invitational and taking third at the Johnie Imes Invitational, FIU freshman Meghan MacLaren received the Sun Belt's Womens' Golfer of the Month award. The next tournament for MacLaren and the Panthers is the FIU-hosted 35th annual Pat Bradley Tournament.
Both E.J. Hilliard and Loranzo Hammonds Jr. took snaps with the first team today. Starting Hilliard sort of opens the door to using Hammonds as a change-of-pace back who happens to line up at quarterback. It's not something they would've done with Jake Medlock, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did it with a quarterback 10 months removed from high school in his first start.
Among the running backs, Kedrick Rhodes did practice and Darian Mallary didn't. Rhodes will be a Wednesday or Thursday decision, according to head coach Mario Cristobal. Also, Cristobal said, Mallary didn't suffer a concussion Saturday, but they'll still wait for midweek results of some testing before letting him practice.
After practice, left tackle Caylin Hauptmann doused Cristobal with a Gatorade birthday bath.
No line on this game is up yet from the sports books I've seen. Books don't like the first game following a quarterback injury.
Upset at The Branch Sunday afternoon in a match that surely exceeded that excruciating display up at Sun Life Stadium for entertainment value.
FIU, 4-10, dumped 10-7 Arkansas State 3-0 (26-24, 25-23, 25-19). Junior Kimberly Smith -- Zionsville in the house! -- had 10 kills. Freshman Ashlee Hodgskin threw in 17 assists and two service aces. Defensively, junior Brittany Spencer had six blocks, and sophomore Carolyn Fouts had 14 digs.
For the second consecutive day, an FIU soccer team won on a golden goal.
The men got by Stetson Saturday night. The women beat Troy 2-1 Sunday afternoon on the third game-winning goal of the season by Chelsea Leiva (of course). Despite a 26-7 shot advantage and 12-1 advantage in corner kicks, FIU found itself in overtime. That's because Troy struck on that one corner in the 70th minute to match sophomore Scarlett Montoya's 48th minute goal.
FIU's 5-4-1 overall, 2-0 in the Sun Belt Conference.
I’m writing this about six hours after I got home from FIU Stadium, three hours after I pushed myself off the couch and into bed. Though cleanliness of copy might be next to Godliness, I usually fall short of that under the best of circumstances. Now, I aim not for artistry, but coherence.
As of right now, Jake Medlock hasn’t been declared done for the season to my knowledge. With what I know of Medlock, his injury and foot injuries in general –- from 2008-10, I was surrounded by them between the Dolphins and my wife, the latter under the deft care of Dr. Michael Wittels, father of Garret – I would be surprised if we see Medlock before November.
That means freshman E.J. Hilliard at quarterback. FIU doesn’t have a choice. They could get away with Lorenzo Hammonds Jr. for a half or a few quarters if they were doing some serious land-locked road grading on the opponent. But for an entire half against a Louisville and for entire games against the rest of the schedule, FIU needs a quarterback with an accurate arm. Medlock had it going Saturday, 10 of 16 for 116 yards, and the line plowed the row fine. Take out sacks, scrambles and the kneel down and the real rushing numbers were 31 carries for 134 yards. Not bad for a team that was down to two healthy running backs by the end of the first quarter.
(Poor Darian Mallary. He almost bounced in place Wednesday, such excitement exploded inside him for the game against his younger brother, Louisville cornerback Andrew Johnson. When he was flat on the ground for several minutes with coaches and medical staff surrounding him, I thought of his brother, stepping away from the Louisville huddle to peer in concern; and their mother. That he got up and off the field drew sighs of relief all around the stadium. But he could be out with a concussion.)
You can’t fault Hilliard for Saturday’s loss. In his first three college three drives, he went nine of 10 for 82 yards and a touchdown, a lovely fade that Jacob Younger brought down with great extension. He showed accuracy, awareness and mobility. His only incompletion came after a botched fourth-and-2 snap, when he had the presence of mind to scoop it up, look downfield and make a throw that just missed Jairus Williams.
Unclean snaps. Unclean punt returns. It’s too late in the season for that.
You could see Hilliard trying to accelerate his thinking to college-game speed. I asked Cristobal this week if Hilliard possessed similarities to his pal, Teddy Bridgewater. Cristobal said the difference was Bridgewater’s experience at the position, not just in college, but high school and beyond.
Speaking of Bridgewater, I’m not sure where the luck fell Saturday. Did FIU get lucky that Bridgewater and his receivers seemed just a tad off? They had at least four drops. Or did Louisville get lucky because, as well as FIU played the Louisville passing game much of the night, even producing Bridgewater’s first two interceptions of the year, the Panthers still left plays on the field.
With FIU up 14-7, linebacker Winston Fraser slapped away a first and goal pass over the middle it looked like he could’ve picked off. Johnathan Cyprien couldn’t have been in better in position on the 1-yard touchdown pass that tied the game 14-14, but he never got his head around to see the ball.
Bridgewater’s third down pass before the roughing the kicker penalty that extended Louisville’s last drive tipped from his receiver into a pride of Panthers. That easily could’ve been an interception at least, game-tying Pick Six very possibly.
Give the defense a B- for the night. What could’ve been two key stops by the defense got undone by special teams. Again. Sam Miller returned punts Saturday in place of Richard Leonard. Miller’s lost muff after a three-and-out to open the second half sank the spirits. Instead of Hilliard coming onto the field for his first drive at the FIU 44 in a 14-14 game, he came on at the FIU 28 down 21-14.
Then, when Louisville inexplicably – considering Chuck Grace’s interception that helped get FIU back in the game – threw on first and third down while up 28-21, FIU got ready to get the ball back with two timeouts, a confident offense and time to work. The Panthers just missed getting Ryan Johnson’s punt, as they just missed all night. But, this time, T.J. Lowder ran into Johnson. Flag, drive extended.
De’Andre Jasper got into action on kickoff returns and, yes, looks quite fast. Like most guys who just flew around people at the previous level, he’s going to have to learn life’s not always better when you dip outside to space. That said, Jasper’s going to be dangerous whenever he gets the ball in his hands.
Jeremiah Harden ran like a man unleashed. He thought he got a bad spot on the fourth down run. I would’ve gone for the field goal. It’s not playing the result, but playing psychology and the play. Take the second part first: FIU had moved the ball on Louisville on that drive and in the first half. With so much time left in the game, there was no reason to think this was a rare shot at a touchdown. Get points.
To the psychological argument: FIU just needed something positive on the scoreboard at that point. Miller’s muffed punt clearly deflated the defense and roused Louisville, considering the ease of that three-play 46-yard drive that put the Cardinals up 21-14. A true freshman in his first college action moved his team into scoring range against the defense of a ranked team. Nonchalantly taking the field goal in this circumstance tells both teams, “No big deal. We know there’s more where that came from and this quarterback can get it for us. Be back later.”
I don’t think it’s an accident that Louisville drove 90 yards after that, keeping the ball for 14 plays and 8:09, converting three third downs.
As to the spot, well…FIU got few breaks from the Big East crew. I never believe imbalance in penalties, such as Saturday’s 11 to 5, is empirical evidence of bias. Some teams commit more penalties than others. Hey, the zebras didn’t have 13 guys on the field for FIU in a goal line defense situation, then take off only one so that FIU got flagged for too-many-men again. Who was running the personnel deployment for FIU, Don Cherry?
Still, the timing of some FIU penalties seemed awfully convenient as did the timing of some no-calls on Louisville. The holding flag on Hilliard’s scramble to the Louisville 1 fell after Hilliard’s kind of rapid lope running style had taken him well downfield. The Harden fourth-down stop occurred later. His later 23-yard scramble also drew well-timed flags. Yet some questionable Louisville blocks on third downs got the official go-ahead.
The 15-yard helmet-to-helmet call on Johnathan Cyprien really goosed the end-of-first-half drive. Instead of third and 5 from the Cardinals’ 28, Louisville had first and 10 at the 43. Good call? I couldn’t tell from my vantage point. Cristobal, who said he wouldn’t change a thing Cyprien did on that play, looked ready to put out a contract on the zebras by halftime.
Don’t expect much better in the coming weeks. All logic said coming into the season FIU wouldn’t get much help from the Sun Belt officials. I thought they might if they got off to a good start. The Duke game dispelled that notion. Now, at 1-3 going into Sun Belt play, they’re like Battling Siki fighting Mike McTeague for the title in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day (Siki lost the decision and the title he won below).
Cristobal said they were playing Jacob Younger too many snaps each game, 75 to 80. That’s why this game saw more Mike Jean-Louis (two catches, 13 yards), freshman Nick England and freshman Raymond Jackson.
Things that make me feel old: seeing James Burgess, out of Homestead High, on Louisville’s roster. I covered James Burgess when he played at Homestead High. James Burgess, Sr., that is.
Sophomore Colby Burdette's overtime goal in the 99th minute gave FIU a 2-1 win against Stetson and a 6-1-1 record this season. Burdette also assisted on junior Gonzalo Frechilla's 60th minute marker that tied the game 1-1.
Back from a furlough day. Not much gripping out of Camp Mitch today...
Junior running back Kedrick Rhodes sat out practice again Tuesday with his right foot or ankle injury. FIU coach Mario Cristobal said whether or not Rhodes would play would be determined on Saturday.
This is just me, but a back who has failed to finish two consecutive games; has an injury bad enough to hold him out of practice consecutive days; and going into the last non-conference game with eight consecutive conference games to follow -- the first two of which are five days apart -- adds up to us more likely to see Lonesome Rhodes than Kedrick Rhodes on Saturday.
STEVE SABOL PASSES
This is a blog on FIU's sports, but, let's be real -- football is the only sport that consistently moves the needle here. One of the men responsible for football's place in our national fabric, NFL Films' President Steve Sabol, died Tuesday at 69 from brain cancer.
Rare is the sports-loving U.S.-raised kid who didn't dream of making a dramatic game-winning play in his sport to be replayed in slow motion with big, thundering music as a soundtrack. That's because for the last 50 years, NFL Films showed us how you can tell a game's story through a filmic package as dramatically as Hitchcock tell could the story of a man with a broken leg seeing the aftermath of a murder. Football's violence and athleticism gained a balletic beauty filmed by Sabol-directed cameras and backed by Sam Spence's music, then a poetic nobility in John Facenda's or Harry Kalas' narration of Sabol-written scripts. Especially in the days before 27 highlight shows run endlessly into Monday morning, we saw the league through NFL Films half-hour shows like Game of the Week or NFL Action.
I dealt with Sabol only a few times over my 23 years at The Herald, but enjoyed each conversation immensely. I think he did, too, as another football history junkie with a long memory.
Several months after the last time I talked to him, the Dolphins were late in the 2010 season and the story idea well of me, Jeff Darlington and Armando Salguero was as dry as the team we were covering. I pulled out my iPod and portable speakers for some NFL Films music just because, why not? Suddenly, Jeff had two good ideas. I had one. Armando had a few. Ideas flew like spirals across an NFL Films screen. We laughed at the coincidence.
Coincidence, my 12E. RIP Steve Sabol, master salesman and muse for generations of NFL afficianados.
This classic piece of music and narration originally accompanied images in "The Championship Chase" NFL Films' 1974 season highlight video.
The line on this game opened with Louisville as 11-point favorites and has quickly moved to 13 or 13 1/2-point favorites depending on the sportsbook. The over/under, however, went from 59 to 57 or 57 1/2.
SHEEHAN KILLING IT
The first two weeks for Suwanee (Ga.) Collins Hill quarterback Brett Sheehan, an FIU commit for 2013: 26 of 40 for 291 yards and two touchdowns plus stood in for the head shot that gave his team 15 yards and set up the game-winning field goal as time expired; 22 of 25 for 275 yards and three touchdowns passing and a 40-yard touchdown run.
So, not bad.
SOCCER SPIN ON TRACK
Obviously, this won't happen this season and it's long been discussed. But, soon, FIU plans to turn FIU Soccer Field from a north-south to an east-west field and put a track around it, thus giving the track team someplace on campus to at least practice. The project (estimated cost: $3 million) still needs to go up for bid.