October 20, 2014

On Young Shoulders

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 19, 2014

A few thoughts on Marshall 45, FIU 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Marshall 48, FIU 24.

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

WOMEN'S SOCCER

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

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

October 15, 2014

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

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

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

DIVING

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

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

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

MEN'S SOCCER

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

THE LONG GREEN

 

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

FOOTBALL COACHES

Todd Monken, Southern Miss, $700,000

Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee State $721,704

David Bailiff, Rice $646,386

Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky $600,000

Doc Holliday, Marshall $600,000

Dan McCarney, North Texas, $600,000

Ron Turner, FIU $501,000

Charlie Partridge, FAU $500,000

Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech $500,000

Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion $425,000

Larry Coker, UTSA, $400,000

Sean Kugler, UTEP $280,000

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

ATHLETIC DIRECTORS

Pete Garcia, FIU $380,654

Brian Mackin, UAB $300,000

Rick Villarreal, North Texas $275,000

Mike Hamrick, Marshall $255,000

Chris Massaro, Middle Tennessee State, $250,000

Patrick Chun, FAU, $250,000

Robert Stull, UTEP $233,000

Lynn Hickey, UTSA $147,540

Tommy McClelland II, Louisiana Tech $140,000

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

Joe Karlgaard, Rice Not Available

Bill McGillis, Southern Miss Not Available

October 14, 2014

LB Wint Possibly Out for the Season

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

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

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

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

October 13, 2014

Smith Makes The List; Volleyball Sweep!

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

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

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

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

VOLLEYBALL

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

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

 

October 12, 2014

A few thoughts on UTSA 16, FIU 13

Sometimes, you see something early in the going and think "If that's how it's going to be, it's going to be a bumpy ride."

When your trip opens with, oh, back-to-back flights delayed after boarding just long enough so that you don't wind up eating for 12 hours, you know it'll end with somebody pounding on your hotel door at 3:30 a.m. because they've got the wrong room. And you're not surprised when the hotel's undergoing more renovations than Bruce Jenner.

The second FIU punt Saturday night got fielded by Texas-San Antonio's Aaron Grubb with three FIU tacklers missiling in on him from the front, the sideline to his right and hopes of any kind of return left back at the snap. Yet, somehow, the coverage allowed Grubb to squirt up the sideline for a 9-yard return.

Most fans and media shrug at those moments when they aren't followed by scoring drives. Coaches gnash their teeth over the "hidden yardage" in the blown tackle, particularly during a defense-dominated game in which special teams often determines field position. Ultimately, the play meant little except as an indicator of the piefight ahead.

Six FIU fumbles, three lost, two causing a total 10-point swing and one recovery being the most amazing one-beating-three this side of Bruce Lee. Six pre-snap penalties. How many drops? At least four, maybe five or six, but less than the number of missed tackles. It's the kind of game I expected from FIU's offense, still too young to maintain consistency. It's hard to ask for more from FIU's defense, which allowed only 16 points, including three field goals in the second half. One came off a 37-yard drive, one off a short field and one after the Glenn Coleman kickoff fumble.

Still, when you lose a game like this, everybody's stained the carpet. At 10-0, FIU, UTSA had one first downs. The Roadrunner's defense had been on the field 5:32 of clock time, an eternity in college-affiliated football, split only by the inadvertently touched punt that FIU recovered to set up FIU's touchdown. The Panthers were starting to push them around. Get the UTSA offense off the field quickly and a tired defense back on the field, the halftime deficit is 10-0, maybe 13-0 or 17-0. The mental mountain in front of UTSA overshadows the actual score.

Instead, they gave up a 74-yard touchdown drive. Not getting it done.

Typical of night's like this: FIU blasted a true freshman quarterback, pocket passer Blake Bogenschutz, out of the game and got redshirt freshman Austin Robinson as Bogenschutz's replacement. Robinson's got a lot of boogie and a good enough arm for what he was asked to do -- mostly bubble screens, swing passes, although he did make some nice throws downfield. If Bogenschutz stays in the game, FIU wins this going away. Robinson ran for 64 yards on 15 carries, including two huge gains on the touchdown drive (37 yards) and the second field goal drive (17 yards).

What undoubtedly kept some FIU players and coaches awake into Sunday morning services is that a reasonably clean game gives FIU a win by 10 or so. UTSA didn't play like a senior-laden team. The Roadrunners got a touchdown called back when a tackle lined up too far off the line. Another touchdown got blown when the bomb fell harmlessly through Brandon Armstrong's arms. Maybe Armstrong lost it in the Alamodome lights. The Roadrunners committed three personal fouls, two that goosed FIU drives. They lost three fumbles themselves.

Do all that and still end a four-game losing streak with a third-string redshirt freshman quarterback against a defense that''s been hurting feelings. No wonder UTSA coach Larry Coker, never known for being an ocean of emotion, got all choked up.

"I've been around this thing for a while, but I've never been prouder of--" Coker paused, tearing up. "I can't even say it..."

Coker's counterpart brought some postgame feeling, too. Though he spoke with a look halfway between wry smile and bewilderment, FIU coach Ron Turner didn't sound happy with anybody. He declared FIU got outplayed, outcoached, played without emotional content, hadn't practiced well.

I didn't have to mention Alex Gardner's fumble on the UTSA 1-yard line with the score tied 10-10. A touchdown there, obviously, changes so much about the end of the game, especially if FIU still gets the field goal later and leads 20-10 into the final two minutes. 

"It's first and goal, he's reaching the ball out!" Turner said. "We've got three more downs to get a touchdown and the ball comes out. Inexcusable. Because we teach never reach the ball out -- unless it's fourth down and there's a pylon. Tha's the only time you ever reach the ball out. Ever. And we've been doing a great job of it. But it doesn't matter what we've been doing. Because we didn't do it tonight. So we got exactly what we deserved."

Earlier, Turner had said he didn't want to put it all on Gardner and he was protective of the freshmen Alexes after the game. I'd asked for Gardner and quarterback McGough for postgame interviews and got rejected. Understandable.

The highlight of a rough night for the Panthers rookies -- freshman linebacker Anthony Wint went down with some sort of injury to his left leg that Turner admitted might be a concern -- might've been Gardner's second quarter fumble recovery. Shortly after he took an option handoff from McGough, UTSA defensive lineman Jason Neill grabbed Gardner and treated him like it was hammer throw practice. Out came the ball, rolling toward the FIU end zone. Defensive lineman Brian Price failed to pick it up and run in one motion as Gardner scrambled from Neill with the desperation of a mama seeing her kid toddle into traffic. He got there a breath before Price decided to just fall on the ball with Neill and another defender joining the party. The recovery at the FIU 4 saved a field goal, possibly a touchdown.

Deep in the red zone gave FIU problems again. Gardner's fumble killed one drive. They took a sack on third and goal on a play with Lamarq Caldwell, in the game as the sole running back, immediately went into a pass pattern. Juxtapose Caldwell's pass blocking skills with his pass catching skills. He can do both, but UTSA had been all over McGough all night. So, if Caldwell's your single running back in that situation, he needs to make sure nobody needs help before leaving. If he was supposed to and didn't, that's on him. If that wasn't on his To Do list for that play, that's on coaching.

FIU's still 3-4, 2-1 in the conference. I see it as a disappointing loss not as much for how they played -- a game like this is inevitable for a young team, though coaches hate to say it -- but for what they lost. , Escaping with a win after getting a goofup game out of their system would've set the Panthers up well for bowl eligibility long term. Short term, they'd face Conference USA monster Marshall next week with more confidence. 

"It's a young team. We've got to learn how to prepare in all areas, each week," Turner said. "We've got to learn how to play with that chip, that edge. We didn't play with the edge. we didn't play with the chip we've had. I talked to them all week to them. We didn't play with the hunger we've played with the last couple of weeks. (If) we get it back, we can be a good football team, win a lot of games. If we don't, we're not. We're not good enough just to go out there and play. We've got to prepare and play as well as we're capable."

 

October 11, 2014

Gameday VII: Wisdom of Age vs. Wiseguys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very tough call. UTSA 24, FIU 13.

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

TYMELL

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

 

October 10, 2014

A Wild Wednesday On The Pitch; Getting Paid

FIU men's soccer coach Scott Calabrese didn't sleep Wednesday night. Calabrese didn't leave the FIU Soccer Field quickly, either. That's the typical reaction to being involved with the climax of Titanic in regular season game form.

Especially when you come out on the Jack end.

No soccer team expects to score four goals and lose, especially at home. No soccer team expects to lose after leading in each half. No team expects to lose by giving up two goals in the final 8:21, including the game-winner with three seconds left in regulation. FIU did all that in a 5-4 loss to South Carolina.

The loss left the Panthers at 3-6-1, but more importantly 0-3 in Conference USA. South Carolina's now 6-5 and 1-2.

A game so wild the Twitter feed almost couldn't keep up with it begged for day after analysis from Calabrese.

"I've never been in a game, that I can recall, that ended in that way where we've scored four goals and lost. I would say 99 out of 100 games, when you score four goals, you win," Calabrese said. "It was a difficult game to accept."

Coaches tend to be conservative, so it's hard for them to think of high scoring games as being well-played. I expected to hear an excoriation of game's defensive play when I asked "was this good offense, bad defense or both."

Calabrese replied, "When we imposed our will on the game, which is based on possession, passing and attacking play, we're very dangerous. Most other teams will have problems with us. When we don't impose ourself on the game, the other team gets possession and we concede set pieces, this is where the game favors the UABs, the South Carolinas. Because, that seems to be a weakness of ours."

Goals by Quentin Albrecht and, early in the second half, Sean McFarlane put the Panthers up 2-1. The Other USC countered with a a Jeffrey Torda garbage goal and a Kaba Mahamoudou header. There's the call. Here's the response: goals by Daniel Gonzalez and Roberto Alterio that gave FIU a 4-3 lead with 11:07 left.

Win? Probably. Tie? Defenitely. 

Nope. The Gamecocks' Ryan Armubala scored tice in the final 8:21 to raise the Cocks to a 5-4 win.

FIU now visits No. 7 Charlotte Saturday in a game Calabrese admitted would be "difficult" even as the Panthers try to prevent Wednesday's game from beating them twice.

FOOTBALL

Congratulations to redshirt junior tight end Akil Dan-Fodio, who was made a scholarship player this week. Earlier in his walk-on college-affiliated football life, Dan-Fodio was on an academic scholarship. Also on scholarship this year after walking on last year (or for several years in Dan-Fodio's case) are sophomore long snapper Sam Medlock and sophomore linebacker/special teams ace De'Shawn Hazziez. Hazziez twice has been a game captain this year.

An Panther Plus e-mail to some season ticket holders claims all the suites now have been sold for this season. That's money!

This qualifies as a "Yeah, but..." The e-mail lists 16 suites. One is The President's Suite, listed as Office of the President. That leaves 15 to sell to non-FIU entities. Nine suites bring money in from off campus. The other six are sold to FIU schools. So, six, possibly seven of 16 suites rob Pablo to pay Pedro, as the saying goes.

This is why three more wins and some bowl money would be a financial hot stone massage.

 

 

October 08, 2014

Preseason C-USA Women's Ball Poll; Men's Ball Schedule's; Football Trying Not to Feel the Noise

The Conference USA coaches picked one of last year's Sun Belt immigrants, Middle Tennessee State, to repeat as conference champions in a close decision over this year's Belt immigrant, Western Kentucky. The former Belt team at FIU was placed 11th in the preseason poll.

The women open the season at home against Tennessee Tech Nov. 14.

MEN'S BASKETBALL

If you're a South Floridian who doesn't get into college-affiliated basketball until the calendar flips, well, you're unique in this town as a South Floridian who gets into it at all. You're also right in line with FIU's men's basketball schedule. The Panthers play only three games in November and December on Replacement Lime Court in FIU Arena. Then the Conference USA schedule kicks in for January and February.

After opening Nov. 14 against Florida College, the Panthers play only one more home game in November (Nov. 21 vs. Florida Memorial) and one in December (Dec. 2 vs. Kennesaw State). The game following Kennesaw will be Dec. 5 in Louisville.

The Conference USA schedule begins Jan. 4 at FAU and at home, Jan. 15 against Marshall. The FAU rematch has been moved to Feb. 3 to accommodate the Miss Universe pageant. The conference tournament, hosted by Alabama-Birmingham, begins Mar. 11.

FOOTBALL

Texas-San Antonio draws an average of 31,946 to the Alamodome. Though less than half the 65,000 capacity, apparently Roadrunners fans voices magnify indoors. It doesn't hurt that with night games, as some of you FIU fans know, you can gas up on tequila in the afternoon and howl like a coyote through prime time.

So, FIU's been practicing with crowd noise and stadium music blasting away. I wonder if the courthouse nearby phoned in a complaint about the noise to one of FIU's long gone former directors of football operations. I hear that sometimes happens.

Despite the headline reference, I refuse to put the video to that overrated cover song here.

 

Conference USA Power Rankings

Why not? Everybody else does them.

1. Marshall (5-0, 1-0 in Conference USA): OK, an all-star team from their schedule so far (Rhode Island, Miami (OH) University, Ohio, Akron, Old Dominion) would have trouble holding Booker T. Washington under 45 so The Herd's 47.6 points per game draws a shrug here. Then again, they know for a truly special season, their margin of error on blowouts is subatomic and their average winning margin is 31.8 points.

2. Middle Tennessee (4-2, 3-0): How does Middle keep finding playmakers while the big boys in Knoxville can find more tutors to write papers than playmakers for whom to write them? Sophomore quarterback Austin Grammer's completing 38 passes per game at a 71.8 percentage. Respectable losses (4-1 Minnesota, 3-2 Memphis) and the ability to outscore Western Kentucky puts them up here. Besides, Middle's near Nashville. Nashville's fun. 

3. FIU (3-3, 2-0): FIU's unique -- their defense doesn't just stop people, rare enough in a conference where scores resemble 1970s ACC basketball. FIU's D makes spirit-crushing plays. Ask Alabama-Birmingham. Nobody else, not even Mississippi State, sat on the Blazers like the Panthers. You can see the offense kind of getting it together over the last four games, Louisville excepted.

4. Louisiana Tech (3-3, 2-0): Spanked Louisiana-Lafayette and put up 42 on North Texas, one of the teams besides Marshall and FIU who knows defense is not what goes around de yard. But they lost to FCS commoner Northwestern State (Bethune's at least a good FCS team). And Tech's in Ruston, which would be two shotgun shacks and a rib joint without Tech's presence.

5. UAB (3-2, 1-1): The rest of the conference worried about the day the Blazers stopped being underachievers. That day looks like today. Now, the concern should be what happens if first-year head coach Bill Clark, a defensive coach, gets the kind of defense he wants.

6. Western Kentucky (2-3, 0-2): The Hill People lost each of their conference games by three points, one in triple overtime to Middle. Under Bobby Petrino disciple Jeff Brohm, they'll be just as problematic as they were in the Sun Belt, and 54 times more entertaining.

7. Old Dominion (3-3, 1-2): ODU should be thankful its first full year in FBS doubles as quarterback Taylor Heinicke's fourth year as a starter. Because, otherwise, you'd need Old Grand Dad to watch Old Dominion.

8. Rice (2-3, 1-1): Tough to gauge Conference USA's Northwestern-Vanderbilt-Duke. Everybody under Marshall would've gotten their knuckles rapped by Notre Dame and Texas A&M. Everybody over UTEP would've dumped Southern Mississippi and Hawaii. So, I slot them here, after Old Dominion, which outscored them 45-42.

9. FAU (2-4, 1-1): In two years, the Shula Bowl could be for the conference title and South Florida's second tier of recruits.

10. UTSA (1-3, 0-1): We'll see this week against FIU if this senior-loaded team got grounded by senioritis. Or, if Larry Coker again proved he can coach a team right up to the point expectations get raised.

11. North Texas (2-3, 0-1): A reassessment's in order. After seeing them brutalize SMU and send June Jones skulking into retirement, I thought their defense looked like 11 grandsons of Mean Joe Greene. Turns out SMU's gone retro, post-death penalty. So, they're the classic bully, beating up on the sickly (SMU, Nicholls State) and getting their comeuppance against those who fight back (Texas, Louisiana Tech, Indiana).

12. UTEP (2-3, 0-1): Losing a conference game by 52 points (55-3 to LA Tech) should get you relegated to the Sun Belt. 

13. Southern Mississippi (2-4, 0-2): They just shouldn't be this bad. 

 

October 07, 2014

C-USA preseason XY hoops poll; football adjustments

Conference USA announced the results of its coaches' preseason men's basketball poll Tuesday. Or, rather, the teams in the happy zone -- No. 1 Louisiana Tech, No. 2 UTEP, No. 3 Charlotte, No. 4 Old Dominion.

Beyond that, the conference isn't saying. Hey, we know FIU's eligible for the tournament this year, so that's an upside.

BACKSTAGE FOOTBALL

FIU will move both home and visiting radio crews inside the FIU Stadium suite/press box area from the outdoor area colloquially and derisively called "Tent City." Complaints to Conference USA by visiting media and the washout of the FIU radio broadcast prompted the change.

Also, FIU's longtime charter plane company, Allegiant Air, canceled the school's contract, claiming passenger violations during FIU's trip to Birmingham two weeks ago. That trip suffered long delays coming and going, not the first time there were problems with Allegiant. So, FIU's happy enough to fly Sun Country the rest of the season.

 

 

October 06, 2014

Leonard's Rare Repeat & Top 10% Lists

You know the story. FIU cornerback Richard Leonard's 100-yard fumble return -- the NCAA doesn't count end zone yardage on returns -- landed on FAU Thursday like a Joe Frazier left hook on Muhammad Ali's jaw. Instead of being tied 17-17, FIU led 24-10 in the third quarter. It was only the fourth 100-yard fumble return in the last 22 years. If that wasn't the knockout blow -- and the feel of the game said it was -- then you'd have to look at Leonard's end zone interception in the fourth quarter that kept FIU up 24-10. The Panthers eventually won 38-10. Leonard had four official pass breakups.

For this, Leonard became the first player since Houston linebacker Wayne Rogers (not this guy) in 2000 to repeat as Conference USA Defensive Player of the week. The last player to go back-to-back is. Leonard, last week's National Defensive Back of the Week according to the College Football Performance Awards, got an Honorable Mention from that group this week.

Leonard ranks seventh in punt returns (17.8 yards per return), 14th in combined kick return yardage (377), ninth in interceptions per game (four in six games, 0.67) and 16th in passes broken up per game (1.5 per game).

As a unit, the FIU defense/special teams coverage unit ranks in the FBS top 10 percent on: fumbles recovered (first, 13); turnovers gained (first, 21); passes intercepted (12th, eight); red zone defense (fourth, 0.60 TD allowance rate); and, as a team, turnover margin (third, 2.17 per game).

Volleyball & Swimming Up, Women's Soccer Even, Men's Soccer Down.

There will be a football-y post later today, including FIU cornerback Richard Leonard getting Honorable Mention from the College Football Performance Awards for his game against the Owlmen Thursday (100-yard fumble return touchdown, end zone interception, bunch of pass breakups).

Let's start off Monday by giving a high five to the volleyball team, though some of you more vertically-challenged readers might have to jump to do that. A tough month of 10 consecutive losses ended with a 3-1 (25-13, 18-25, 25-23, 25-16) win over Alabama-Birmingham on Replacement Lime Court at FIU Arena, the team's first win since Sept. 6 and first Conference USA win.

Freshman Kiona McSwain had match highs with 38 assists and nine digs, the latter tying senior Martyna Gluchowicz. Freshman Jennifer Ene led in kills with 13.

SWIMMING & DIVING

The water women lost Sonia Perez and ace diver Sabrina Beaupre among several others and added a busload of freshmen. Appropriate, then, that freshmen piled up winning points Saturday as FIU smoked FAU 205-95 at the Biscayne Bay Campus in the first dual meet of the season.

Italian Silvia Scalia won the 100 backstroke, 200 back and 200 individual medley events. Her 200 back time of 2:01.69 is third in FIU history behind Perez's 1:57.35 and then-freshman Johanna Gustafsdottir's 1:54.40. Burlington, Ontario's Rebecca Quensel won both diving events.

Gustafsdottir, now a senior, won the 200 freestyle, 200 breaststroke and anchored the 400 free relay with sophomore Jenny Alfani, senior Klara Andersson and freshman Ally Mayhew. Senior Jean Madison won the 100 breast. Alfani won the 50 free.

WOMEN'S SOCCER

Weather pushed Friday's FIU-FAU match into being the finale of last week's Battles With Boca. After 90 minutes of regulation followed by overtime, 0-0.

And it was as defensive as that sounds. Each team allowed only seven shots at goal. FIU put four shots on goal, FAU managed only two.

FIU'S 6-5-1, 1-1-1 in Conference USA going into this week's Friday-Sunday road trip to UAB and Middle Tennessee State.

MEN'S SOCCER

The men (3-5-1, 0-2-0) went out to No. 15 New Mexico. They'd have been better off taking a left turn at Albequerque instead of playing there. The 2-0 loss featured a goal against in the first minute and midfielder Nelson Milsaint red-carded for fighting near the end of the first half.

They're back home against South Carolina Wednesday. 

October 03, 2014

A few thoughts on FIU 38, FAU 10 (on 3 hours sleep)

A long night at FIU that left everybody's indicator on E -- on the field, excellence and entertainment. Off the field, embarrassment.

Let's deal with the good stuff first.

These numbers put the jam in FIU's donut: 7 plays, 70 yards, touchdown, first offensive possession of the game; 10 plays, 80 yards, touchdown for a 31-10 fourth quarter lead that ends the competitive phase of the game; 41 rushes for 185 yards as a team; 18 of 29 passing for 160 yards, no interceptions, for Alex McGough.

You need big plays to win. But, living offensively off big plays puts you in the same precarious position as living off restaurant food. Sometimes, the restaurant's closed or you can't get a table. Then, you've got to go back to getting your sustanence the simple, steady way.

"We scored on two big plays against UAB," McGough said. "We knew they were going to sit back and let us drive up the field. That's exactly what we did."

The last two weeks established Alex Gardner as the lead back with Anthon Samuel an able backup. A few weeks ago, the more physically mature Samuel appeared better built to handle the lead back pounding than the freshman Gardner. The last two weeks, Gardner's carried the ball 40 times with little dropoff. So much for looks.

That said, it was Samuel who got the ball the last three times when FIU coach Ron Turner was determined to muscle in a touchdown with FIU up 7-3 in the second quarter. Turner said afterwards as soon as Gardner's 12-yard swing pass reception put FIU on the Owls' 2, he told his staff, "We're in four down territory." They were going for it on fourth if the distance was a yard or less. Turner figured FIU would need points. Also, if stopped, the defense would hold and give the offense good field position. I also thought the offensive line needed both a show of confidence from the coaches and something to show for the effort. Against Wagner, they'd failed in a similar situation. You need a line that believes wholly it can gain 1 yard.

On his 24-yard touchdown run, Gardner's hard cutback through a left side hole in which you could've roasted a pig showed nice vision. 

"I thought we blocked the guys up front well (against UAB)," Turner said. "The guys making the tackle last week -- we averaged only 2.7 yards per carry -- was the safety. They had an extra guy in the box all day. I thought our guys did a good job.

"At the end of the game, we ran the same play five or six straight times. If you can go that and control it, you've got something going."

Those plays went Samuel for 1; Samuel for 6; Samuel for 5; Samuel for 11; Samuel for 4; Samuel for 9 and the final touchdown.

Speaking of scoring or not...I'm not sure I've ever seen a team pitch a shutout for a half while giving up 236 yards of offense. That's what FIU did in the second half. Two words: Richard Leonard.

The redshirt junior cornerback's not a one-man defense. He is, however, the defense's prime banana in the tailpipe. He stops offenses with the kind of defensive impact plays FIU's lacked with any kind of consistency since 2011.

Last night, I was reminded of the 2001 NFL team that played college-affiliated football out of Coral Gables. As that team hung on to a 12-7 lead with Boston College driving, Dan LeBatard said to another Herald writer at the game, "It's Ed Reed time." And Reed, soon after, took the ball out of the hands of a defensive lineman who had intercepted a deflected pass and flew down the field for a touchdown.

As FAU closed on the end zone to tie in the third quarter, I thought, "FIU needs a major play right here." As FAU closed on the end zone in the fourth quarter, trying to get back into the game after Leonard's 100-yard fumble return touchdown put FIU up 24-10, I thought, "It's Richard Leonard time."

Inexplicably, FAU went at Leonard after spending most of the night trying junior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon with some success. The fade pattern resembled Tyler Boyd's touchdown catch over Leonard in the loss to Pittsburgh and, a little less so, Louisville's James Quick's touchdown catch over Leonard. This time, Leonard got position and came down with the ball.

"I've learned from my mistakes in the Pitt and the Louisville games," Leonard said. "More focused, just attacking the ball, really."

The fumble return demonstrated instincts of a playmaker. Falling on the ball works, there, too. FIU ball at the 20. But playmakers obey the instinct that tells them to see the rock and make it gold. Sometimes, that doesn't work -- the ball bounces the wrong way, player trips or slips. But when the playmaker times the bounce and gets a litle help, well...

First, give credit to safety Jordan Davis for getting to the hole and ball carrier Jay Warren. The Davis' caused fumble bounded into the end zone. Leonard gave a get-out-of-here to FAU quarterback Jaquez Johnson. He credited McKinnon's block on tight end Jenson Stoshak as the one that set him free. Then, somewhere around the FIU 40, Leonard engaged his 5.0 engine and...whoooo-wee.

By the way, along with Davison Colimon's recovery of a Michael Wakefield-caused Warren fumble earlier, that's five fumble recoveries this season after an opponent got inside the FIU 10. 

Leonard also had four of FIU's seven pass breakups. He might consider three of those breakups missed interception opportunities. If he does, he should give himself a break. On kickoffs, FAU pooch kicked to avoid him. Meanwhile, FIU went right at FAU's Lucky Whitehead, one of the nation's best returners. Whitehead took his lone punt return back 21 yards, but averaged only 21.7 on his three kickoff returns.

FIU got pressure on Johnson, but only one sack, Denzell Perine's strip that Lars Koht recovered to set up the first Samuel touchdown. Still, the pass rush got to Johnson. Some of his throws got rushed by a half-second to a second, when he didn't set his feet or take the breath to have good mechanics. Thats' the difference between completing maybe 60 percent and completing 19 of 42 (45.2 percent) for 225 yards as Johnson did. 

There's no great FIU radio call of Leonard's fumble return. Because there's no FIU radio call of the second half. Now, we're to the embarrassing part.

FIU Stadium's inadequacy as an FBS facility caused some ludicrous snapshots during the halftime lightning delay.

There were the FIU media relations staffers, forced into the stadium's outdoor Tent City by no room in the press box, getting hassled by stadium personnel trying to herd them inside as they tried to save their laptops containing years of FIU athletic' teams' information. Inside the press box, you had FAU student reporters, who had been stationed outside, laying on the floor as if this were a finals' study group.

Meanwhile, the tarpaulin covering FIU radio's equipment blew off, exposing the electronics to the rain and ending the broadcast. Over in the FAU radio tent, the rain destroyed the phone lines they had to use for broadcast. Their broadcast continued in the second half via cell phone. An engineer got shocked several times as he tried to get the equipment running.

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(Photos by David J. Neal and zap-proof Herald intern Ava Wallace)

This shouldn't happen at this level of college-affiliated football. I wouldn't be surprised if FAU's radio team files a complaint with Conference USA.

Put some of the media in unsold suites, which aren't wired for radio, so radio crews can work inside the press box. Maybe that's not possible. Lift small trailers up to that level. But the athletic department and facilities need to do something so everybody who is usually inside a media box -- coaches, media, NFL scouts, etc. -- can be inside something. These days, everybody's got electronic equipment that can be ruined by rain.

You don't have to be big time to leave a positive impression. Just don't be small time. Getting knocked off the air by wind and rain must be considered unacceptable.

(This is a department and facilities problem, not a media relations department one. They merely have to play the hand they're dealt).

The football team came up with a big time performance against its natural rival and now leads Conference USA East while coalescing on offense and producing spirit-killing turnovers on defense. Texas-San Antonio looked better two weeks ago. Rice needs Blue Cross. Old Dominion? Old D has bad D. I can't see North Texas scoring on FIU.

Bowl eligibility sits on the next landing a few steps up from where FIU stands right now. I did not think I'd be writing that sentence on Oct. 3.

 

October 02, 2014

Gameday VI: Civil Fights

FAU wide receiver Lucky Whitehead was born in Manassas, Virginia. Down here, where the state flags all bear the influence of the Confederacy, the name of that city recalls the Civil War's first great battle and a second major conflict a year later. Up north, those battles are referred to as The First Battle of Bull Run and The Second Battle of Bull Run.

Before Bull Run I, fans of the Northern Army exepected such an easy victory, some of the affluent rode in carriages to fields near the battle -- not far from either Union or Confederate land -- and sat down to picnic with a view of the action. Early on, attacks on the flanks worked slightly better for the North. Yet the army from the South rallied behind the unyielding unit of General Stonewall Jackson. Eventually, after gaining a few key turnovers, the army from the South sent their geographic, red, white and blue cousins scampering back north in a rout retreat only slightly less organized than the pursuit. Both sides, you see, brought more enthusiasm than experience to the fight.

Not that I'm tempted to draw any parallels to what might happen Thursday.

Lucky Whitehead's this week's JJ Nelson. Nelson's the Alabama-Birmingham wide receiver/kick returner FIU had to keep from going (Forrest) GUMP all over Legion Field last week. Nelson's totals: four catches for 55 yards; five punt returns for 41 yards; one kickoff return for 19 yards; zero touchdowns. After his 40-yard catch that sparked UAB's first touchdown drive, he caught three passes for 15 yards. That was excellent kick coverage on special teams aside from one 19-yard punt return; pass rush, good coverage by FIU corners Richard Leonard and Jeremiah McKinnon with occasional help from safeties Demarkus Perkins and Justin Halley. They'll need the same kind of effort Thursday night against Whitehead, the national leader in combined kick returns, 15th in all-purpose yardage and 16th in kickoff return average.

FIU sophomore kicker Alex, er, Austin Taylor's kickoffs rarely reach the end zone, but at least they're in a corner, which limits the returner's options. FIU's got some special teams aces among the defensive backs. McKinnon's always been good on kick coverage. Redshirt sophomore Deonte Wilson and freshman Shemarke Spence always seem involved in tackles made before the 20. When Perkins plays special teams, he brings his special brand of violence to the party.

By the way, after rewatching last week's 34-20 FIU win against UAB, I'm not sure Perkins didn't have a better overall game than Richard Leonard. And I voted for Leonard as Conference USA Defensive Player of the Week. Whereas Leonard supplemented his excellent game in pass coverage with very good run support, Perkins supplemented his excellent run support with very good pass coverage. And he hits. Hard. Real hard. Like makes guys think, "forget this, there's work at the post office" hard.

Perkins caught FAU coach Charlie Partridge's attention.

"Some guys that stood out on film," Partridge said this week. "Very active defensive end, I believe he has 5.5 sacks, No. 55 (junior Michael Wakefield); their outside linebacker No. 53 (freshman Anthony Wint) and their leading tackler, the boundary safety No. 14 (Perkins)."

I liked the way FIU moved Wakefield around against UAB. After he'd been humiliating the right tackle, then the tight end (whoever called that blocking scheme, tight end solo on Wakefield, needed to be flogged), he lined up inside at a defensive tackle position. That put Denzell Perine, Wakefield and Giovanni Francois on the field at the same time in long yardage situations. That's a lot of speed and quickness to deal with for anybody. On the play before Leonard's second interception, UAB running back Jordan Howard, staying in to block on 3rd and Central Park, helped the right tackle. That left Wakefield one-on-one with the guard. He put the guard glute-to-grass, stepped over him and cleaned up the carnage started by Lars Koht.

I think Partridge will make sure his running backs and H-backs notice where Wakefield and Perine are and tell them, "They're your job, too." Also, Partridge will hope FIU's pass rush gets sloppy enough to give quarterback Jaquez Johnson some escape routes and he can lumber out (Johnson's not the fastest guy) into the secondary. FAU running back Jay Warren's run for 244 yards on 49 carries in his last three games, a 4.98 average. It'll be interesting to see how the Owls use Warren early. FIU's been squashing the run, so expect Whitehead or Jenson Stoshak to test single coverage off play action on one of the first two possessions. Johnson will throw with the confidence of a quarterback who hasn't thrown an interception yet this season.

FAU's given up some yards on the ground and I'm talking the last three games, not the paid whipping boy games against Nebraska and Alabama that started FAU's season. Let's see if FIU can get its running game going without the niggling penalties that take the Panthers out of running situations. Also, it would help if FIU weren't so predictable. Some sets just scream, "We're running it THERE!" For example, when tight end Jonnu Smith motions from a slot or H-back position to an offset fullback, FIU's staying on the ground and probably running to the side Smith's shaded toward. It might help everybody concerned -- running backs Alex Gardner or Anthon Samuel, quarterback Alex McGough -- if FIU ran a bootleg pass or straight away play action off that motion occasionally.

FIU coach Ron Turner noted FAU plays its safeties deep to prevent the explosive plays or chunk plays that have been FIU's offensive manna. If McGough's patient, he'll have a chance at those with mismatches in linebacker coverage on FIU's tight ends or running backs.

This game doesn't feel point heavy. It does feel like a late interception will decide it, maybe set up the winning points or truncate a drive to win or tie. Johnson hasn't thrown one this year. Six game sans picks? Nah.

FIU 24, FAU 21.

But that's the opinion of one descendant of a former slave and the former slave's fully Irish wife. I could be wrong.

 

 

 

September 30, 2014

Quick Hits on 3 Parts of Rivalry Weekend

A short week before The Shula Bowl made Tuesday a Thursday in the FIU football world. Players bounced off the field like kids going from recess to lunch, a light Wednesday from knocking heads with somebody again. Then, it's 10 days off before going to Texas-San Antonio to complete this early Conference USA season mini-round robin.

No injuries of note. Cornerback Richard Leonard might get another look on offense this week.

What FIU would really like to see offensively comes in Snack Pak boxes of yardage instead of one economy size chunk of yardage. Long, laborious drives of many plays and much real world time. Give your defense time to rest. Mentally and physically crush the opponent under a feeling that they're standing against an inexorable force.

The most plays contained in an FIU touchdown drive this year is eight. That's something they'd like to change Thursday.

WOMEN'S SOCCER

 The disappointment of Sundays' 2-1 loss to Charlotte still lived in FIU coach Thomas Chestnutt's voice Monday. Up 1-0 at halftime, at home on a skillet of a soccer field, the Panthers (6-5, 1-1 in Conference USA) couldn't bring home the win in the last game in a seven-game homestand.

"It's about us finding a killer instinct and being able to kill off teams," Chestnutt said. "Playing-wise, we're good enough to beat every team that stands in our way. I like what we have. I like what we're capable of."

Chestnutt points to a team defense that allows only 8.2 shots per game -- "we're well organized defensively and not allowing tams to have good looks at our goal" -- and points out they've got more going for them than fifth-year senior Chelsea Leiva, who has seven goals and an assist in 11 games.

Senior forward Ashleigh Shim is "not showing up on the scoresheet but she's making a lot of things happen," Chestnutt said. He pointed out senior Marie Egan's play in the back and senior Johanna Volz in the midfield.

FIU's part of Battle of the Identifying Vowels Weekend comes Friday when they go to FAU. After actual road games at UAB and Middle Tennessee State, they'll be back home Oct. 17 to face Rice.

SWIMMING & DIVING

FIU's best team for combining athletics and academics does its athletics thing on the Biscayne Bay campus, across town from the activity hub of Camp Mitch. Occasionally, other athletes journey over to watch them, sometimes out of gratitude for the water women showing up at everybody else's games.

But for Saturday's noon season opening meet against FAU, you can get on the bus, Gus, to the Biscayne Bay Campus. You don't need to discuss much, but you do need to e-mail Liz Augustin at LAugusti@fiu.edu. The deadline for reserving a spot was today. Do it early Wednesday and claim you're working on Miami time.

 

 

September 29, 2014

Leonard Gets C-USA and CFPA Weekly Attaboys

Richard Leonard picked off two passes in Saturday's 34-20 win against Alabama-Birmingham, taking one to the house and running the other back 46 yards to set up a field goal. Between those plays, he led the fourth and 2 stop in the third quarter, not the play you usually see a cornerback make in short yardage.

That's why Leonard, along with Air Force's Weston Steelhammer (what an awsome name), is the College Football Performance Award's National Defensive Back of the Week and the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Week.

 

September 28, 2014

A few thoughts on FIU 34, UAB 20

I'll get to how FIU did to UAB what the Blazers thought they would do to FIU in a moment. But here's my favorite defensive sequence of the game, the moment FIU's defense truly delivered crushed out UAB:

UAB was at the FIU 43. The Panthers' 24-13 lead seemed certain to be shrunk a little. The Blazers moved the ball on their previous possession for the first time in the second half. That drive should've ended with Jeremiah McKinnon's incredible one-armed interception, but he got called for pass interference, an amazing feat when it was a one-armed pick because McKinnon's other arm was held. The drive did end with a fourth and 2 stoning of Jordan Howard led by cornerback Richard Leonard. 

Anyway, with UAB a first down from field goal range, defensive end Michael Wakefield drew a holding call. First and 20 at the UAB 47 and a posse chased quarterback Cody Clements from the pocket into a 3-yard gain. Second and 17, Imarjaye Albury with a sack. Third and 19, Wakefield with a sack for a loss of 11 as Giovanni Francois gets flagged for offside. Wakefield, in particular, that series devastated his man on each play. I thought, "UAB should decline this, punt, figure out some scheme for blocking Wakefield." Seriously, I thought a punt would be better for UAB than whatever might happen on third and 14. I wondered if Clements might be thinking "Decline the penalty, I'm getting beat up here."

UAB took the penalty, as positive thinking and all good sense indicated the Blazers should. And on third down, Clements threw a ball that three FIU defenders had a better shot at than his intended receiver and Leonard intercepted. He ran it back 46 yards to the UAB 14. FIU got a field goal out of that.

Two UAB plays later, 27-13, FIU morphed into 34-13, FIU on Perkins' 31-yard pick six. Ballgame.

"We just wanted to eliminate the big plays. Coach told us we'd have a bunch of chances to get interceptions this week and we took advantage," Leonard said. "There was nothing different about it -- in their face, disrupt the timing."

UAB kept throwing long and hit two, a 40-yarder to JJ Nelson and a 34-yarder to tight end Gerald Everette, plus got that pass interference call on McKinnon. They also failed to connect on a couple they had open. Nelson got behind Leonard in the second quarter, but dropped what would've been a pretty sliding bomb catch. UAB scored the next play anyway when Everett did his monster truck act through the FIU secondary.

Still, three completions over 20 yards and one pass interference to four interceptions is a hit-to-pick ratio any defense will take and walk out laughing.

Something else that should be noticed is FIU's defensive discipline. All those times Cody Clements left the pocket usually skedaddling from danger, rarely did FIU lose track of receivers downfield. Meanwhile, FIU's line kept good lines of pursuit. Clements broke free for one 19-yard scramble and the 15-yard touchdown in garbage time. You get pressure like FIU got all game, you'll take two plays of lost containment against the many where Clements took a sack, threw it away or ran for picayune gain. On the two fourth downs UAB tried to draw FIU off, the Blazers wound up jumping early.

Of the 380 offensive yards FIU allowed, most came on UAB's first drive of the game and last two drives in garbage time. That pressure on Clements and Jeremi Briscoe helped with those interceptions. FIU coach Ron Turner agreed those weren't throws a comfortable quarterback makes. Five defensive turnovers, two that went for touchdowns. In the competitive phase of the game, the FIU defense outscored the UAB offense 14-13.

The Panthers didn't move the ball with consistency. They turned three short fields off turnovers into two field goals. Their 297 yards of offense won't raise any eyebrows, especially when 160 of those yards (53.8 percent) came on two plays. But they showed capability for the big strike again with the 75-yard and 85-yard touchdown passes to Jonnu Smith and Glenn Coleman, respectively. That's what UAB had done earlier this season. 

By the way, big ups to Coleman, who had 106 yards on four catches and the block that sprung Smith on up the sideline on his touchdown. Wonderful speed shown by Smith on that play, outrunning a fast secondary.

Leonard, Coleman, soccer player Chelsea Leiva...those that missed their 2013 seasons keep showing what their teams lacked in their absence. Coleman's averaging 20.83 yards per catch on his 12 receptions. Leonard had two interceptions, made the aforementioned fourth down stop and did a cameo on offense running a jet sweep for 5 yards.

(Leiva had another two-goal game Friday night in the FIU women's win. Guess we should mention here the FIU men footballers lost their conference opener to UAB 3-2 on a goal with 20 seconds left.)

Both freshmen Alexes went the distance. Alex Gardner handled 19 of the 27 carries between he and Anthon Samuel. Gardner's roommate, quarterback Alex McGough, never got swapped out for EJ Hilliard this game, although early on, he couldn't hit the broad side of Big Momma.

"I was trying to throw the ball too hard. That's a big problem I have," McGough said. "They were playing pretty good defense throughout the game. I was trying to force it in the beginning. Coach Turner pulled me aside and told me 'calm down, throw the ball nice and soft, a catchable pass.'"

Turner said, "He did a really good job mentally and was focused. He just missed a couple of throws that he should've made early that would kept some drives (going), but he's not going to make every throw. He's a young guy. What I did like is that he did miss some throws early, but he hung in there, hugn in there, and just kept playing and believing in himself."

As for the running game, Turner liked some of what he saw, but didn't like the inopportune false start penalties and some blown blocks that blew up plays at the handoff.

"The good news is we got a win," he said. "The better news is I think we can become so much better because we hurt ourselves a lot."

Such as the three red zone trips off turnovers. Three field goal attempts, partially because there were three false start penalties. For the day, FIU had 10 penalties for 65 yards.

FIU a two-touchdown underdog against a team with talent but not much record of recent success. A flood of turnovers, including Randy Harvey getting a special teams turnover...yeah, this reminded me a bit of the Panthers beating Southern Mississippi a year ago.

About two hours before the game, UAB players began trickling onto the field. They walked around, some down to the opposite end zone before all arriving at midfield. They formed a shield shape. A step forward, arms wrapped around shoulders, they bowed they had a team prayer. No matter your relgious feelings, it was beautiful to watch the aesthetics of them coming together. I wish I'd shot video, but instead ot just this picture.

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Also, here's a shot of the home side of Legion Field, as requested by chiapanther (file too big for Twitter). The announced crowd was 16,133. Even if that was the actual crowd (go with 10,000 to 12,000 actual) Legion Field still seats over 71,000, even without the removed upper deck. What would be a nice crowd for a stadium sized like The Cage, a stadium UAB would love, looks like a family club meeting in Legion Field.

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