Highlights from Tuesday's post-practice mini-media session with football head coach Ron Turner (yes, I was there now that The Cone of Silence has been lifted):
FIU came out of Saturday's game healthy. I didn't see any of Home Depot orange injury jerseys as the players came off the field.
Turner again said freshman Alex McGough will start at quarterback, EJ Hilliard will play at some point, but the breakdown of playing time remains to be determined.
No special preparations or changes in practice have been enacted to prepare for the midday surface-of-the-sun heat that'll come with a noon kickoff at La Cage. "I coached in Pittsburgh -- it gets hot there, too."
Pittsburgh running back James Conner, on whom I'll be writing for Wednesday's paper, said it was 93 degrees on the field for Pitt's season opener against Delaware.
The Board of Trustees Athletics Committee meets Wednesday, 8:15 a.m. in the Graham Center Ballrooms. Executive Director of Sports and Entertainment (EDSEl?) Pete Garcia, Compliance Director Hank Harrawood and a cast of several athletics department administrators give States of Our Corner of the World addresses to the committee. Always an interesting listen.
There's usually a top notch student-athlete paraded before the committee to show the department at its best in both "student" and "athlete." With Jerica Coley now just a graduate student and Aramis Garcia now in the Giants' organization, expect perhaps softball's Corinne Jenkins or Stephanie Texiera to be the showpiece athlete.
The College Football Performance Awards keep an eye on FIU. So, the CFPA noticed sophomore Jonnu Smith's nine catches, 127 receiving yards and touchdown as its Tight End Performer of The Week. And defensive end Michael Wakefield's two fumble recoveries, forced fumble and sack got him honorable mention under Defensive Linemen Performer of the Week.
Meanwhile, Pitt will go into Saturday's game without starting center Artie Rowell, out for the season with a torn ACL. Redshirt sophomore Gabe Roberts is the likely replacement, although Pitt coach Paul Chryst said Monday Roberts and Alex Bookser would be worked at the spot during the week.
Pitt opened as a 27 1/2-point favorite. The line quickly moved down to 25 1/2 then back up to 26.
The Sept. 20 game against Louisville will kick off at 3:30 and be shown on Fox Sports 1.
The Seahawks gave FIU a chance to stack some confidence blocks and game experience before FIU's got to protect those blocks from Pittsburgh and Louisville's kicks over the next two weeks. In the manner of any good sparring partner, Wagner made FIU work for the goodies. Well, except for Richard Leonard's 60-yard pick six. That was a clear case of quarterback and receiver not being on the same page. Or, being on the same page, but one's reading Pete Gent and the other's reading Dan Jenkins. Credit Leonard for reading the quarterback correctly and sitting on the pattern. Again, cheap scores. When you have a poor offense, sometimes you need Eggo waffles for dinner. That's exactly what FIU didn't get last year and the second week in a row Leonard served up points (the 71-yard punt return preceding last week's touchdown). It was FIU's first interception return for a touchdown since Johnathan Cyprien victimized Louisiana-Monroe's Kolton Browning in 2011.
Also on the menu was a tray of eight other turnovers served up by both teams, the nine tying an FIU school record set against Arkansas State in 2005, then matched against North Texas (2005) and Arkansas (2007). In the previous games, FIU played main philanthropist with their opponents just occasionally getting in on the act. Saturday, Wagner provided six turnovers, tying Florida A&M for most by an FIU opponent.
Panthers defensive end Michael Wakefield caused two fumbles, recovered another, blocked two passes and had a sack. Pretty good night's work. Freshman Shemarke Spence caused one fumble and picked off a pass. FIU's other sack came from the other starting defensvie end, defensive end Denzell Perine. Perine left the stadium on a cart in the fourth quarter. He got off the field with great difficulty despite being supported under the arms by training staffers. He allegedly was seen walking well after the game.
I forgot to ask why any of FIU's defensive starters were still in the game in the fourth quarter. They lost their zero back in the first quarter after FIU's first turnover, the punt that touched punt return blocker De'Shawn Hazziez and wound up under a dogpile. That occurred at the opposite end of the field from the press seating -- writers and sports information folks now chew air in the westernmost suite -- so I couldn't tell how well Leonard gave the "SCATTER! GET OUT OF THE WAY! INNNNNCOOOMMMMMING!" warning.
Other than a handful of passes, FIU got what it should've wanted from the defense the first two weeks. Last week, the defense sat on Bethune-Cookman enough to give the Panthers a chance to win a game in which they went one for 16 on offensive third downs. This week, they allowed only three more first downs (nine) than turnovers snagged; outscored the opposing offense 7-3; and allowed that field goal on a drive that started at their 21. Overatched opponent? Squish him. Can't ask for much more than that.
While that's what FIU coach Ron Turner wanted to see out of his defense, what he didn't want to see was the welterweight bout between FIU cornerback Randy Harvey and Wagner wide receiver Keith Foster after a fourth quarter running play. Foster beat Harvey for a 38-yard gain two plays earlier. Whether or not things began there and had been escalating or began earlier in the game, it's a late game lapse in judgement that'll cost Harvey game time.
"We will not tolerate guys throwing punches," FIU coach Ron Turner said. "That will not be tolerated here. Guys do that, they will not play. I don't care who he is. It doesn't matter if he throws the first punch, which he didn't; or if retaliate, which he did. It will not be tolerated. I can assure you of that."
Losing the backup cornerback for a half or a game next week pales in comparison to keeping your now-backup quarterback's head in the game.
Junior E.J. Hilliard came into the game with FIU up 24-3 in the second quarter. After freshman starter Alex McGough took most of the third quarter shift, Hilliard took the last 2:07 of the third and all of the fourth. Hilliard completed 14 of 15 for 169 yards. McGough completed nine of 18 for 60 yards and two touchdowns.
If Hilliard hadn't done some growing up over the last 18 months, he'd be gone. Metaphorically, if not physically. Without a matured center of mental gravity, the new system, position battles, losses on the field and, for now, loss of starting job would have him kind of just...there. (In case you were wondering, Jake Medlock went 13 of 24 for 140 yards, two touchdowns and an interception Saturday in a 38-10 win for Valdosta State over Albany State.)
Turner said "I don't see why not" when asked about continuing to play both McGough and Hilliard.
"If we have to play two quarterbacks to get the W, that's what we have to do," Hilliard said. "It was a tough situation, going into the season starting then getting demoted. But we worked so hard as a team to get to the point where we're at to let something like that break the team down. I just wanted to make sure it wasn't me that brought the morale of the team down.
"They told me I was demoted. I did everything I could to help him. Because at the end of the day, we want to win. He wants to win, I want to win, the team wants to win."
Turner said, "A tough situation. He showed his character and showed he's a team guy."
McGough said he wanted to improve his deep ball accuracy this week, but didn't feel he did it. One bomb he did drop in perfectly went to fellow freshman Dennis Turner. Drop. Darn.
Too bad because that would've rounded out the youth contributions. The aforementioned Spence. A freshman starting at quarterback and, despite freshman moments like a 15-yard sack, having a 2-0 touchdown/interception ratio. Sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith's 127 receiving yards included buffing that quarterback's stats by trucking up the left sideline 41 yards with a short pass. And, of course, freshman running back Alex Gardner's 138 rushing yards on only 15 carries, which broke down to 104 yards on four carries and 34 yards on 11 carries.
Gardner said he wanted to work on his pass blocking this week because last week it was "horrible." While possibly true, that's to be expected. Pass blocking, both technique and recognition on who to pick up, always will be the toughest thing for a running back moving up a level. If you're good enough to get to the next level, odds are you didn't have to do much pass blocking because the offense tended to run through you.
"We've got to be able to run the ball. We've got to be able to run it better than we did a week ago," Turner said. "At times, we did today and at times it wasn't as good as we would like. But, we know going in, the style of defense they play -- they do a lot of different things, a lot of pressures -- we told them, with what we have in the game plan, there are going to be some minus runs, some zero runs and there are going to be some big plays. Because that's how they play."
I didn't like the inability to shove the ball over from the 1-yard line after Gardner's 62-yard run. They got the touchdown anyway, on the rollout pass to Cory White, but you've got to be able to muscle that in on Mr. Natalie Wood. Former Dolphins tight end Jim Mandich said one of his coaches, I think, always said at some time in the game, there's going to come a point when you need to gain 1 yard and you better be able to do it.
(Pausing for a little melancholy writing Mandich's name on an NFL morning. Good man who I knew of since my single digits in age; knew as acquaintance just from working in the same market for over 20 years; but only got to know in any substantive way his last few years. And almost immediately wished I'd gotten to know him better much earlier.)
Nice to see running backs Alfonso Randolph (knee) and Anthon Samuel (transfer, head, hand) back on the field. Randolph fumbled on his only carry. Samuel got a fourth quarter touchdown by getting to the pylon on a 4-yard run. Shane Coleman didn't see the field.
Saturday's official attendance: 9,981. Yeah, it's Wagner after a disppointing home loss with the University of Miami hosting Florida A&M at the same time. Still, that means season ticket sales might be off by 3,000 or so from last year, 2,000 from two years ago. I counted only six of 17 suites sold to non-FIU entities.
That's more worrisome for FIU than Pittsburgh or Louisville. They'll at least get experience from those games.
It wasn't until afterwards, seeing the reactions of some FIU staff that I realized it's been since the second game of the 2012 season that FIU experienced happiness at home. It's nice for everyone to experience a little "ahhhh."
When's the last time an FBS team played a must-win game in the second week of the season against an mediocre-to-bad FCS opponent?
That's where FIU finds itself Saturday against Wagner.
Until somebody shows up with Al Green's version of "I Can't Get Next To You," a '53 Dom Perignon and a 1950 Lena Horne, we are not here to indulge in fantasy. FIU's not beating Pitt or Louisville. The Panthers' very good secondary should slow Marshall, but not enough. I picked an upset of Rice in our season preview section, but the Rice team I saw play Notre Dame is at least 20 points better than FIU right now. If you saw Texas-San Antonio and its 173 seniors Thursday night against Arizona, you know FIU won't want to remember the Alamodome.
Did you see the knot that UAB, the Cindrella in the state of Alabama to Auburn and Alabama's wicked stepsisters, put on Troy's head? Yeah, Troy isn't the Troy of a few years ago, but can you see FIU putting up 489 yards of offense and 48 points on anybody right now? Suddenly, that game at Legion Field doesn't look like any kind of holiday and not just because Rosh Hashana ends the night before.
This is a game FIU needs to win just to keep parts of the athletic department from power bombing Xanax.
They'll get that win.
Last week, defensive coordinator Josh Conklin got to experience the joys of having a pair of cornerbacks he could slap on outside receivers without worry. With Richard Leonard and Jeremiah McKinnon coating the outer linings of the offense, Conklin could do all manner of things with the other nine in stuffing Bethune's run game last week. Wagner's three best backs averaged a pedestrian 3.5 yards per carry last week against a Georgetown defense that lacked a Patrick Ewing or Michael Graham anywhere.
Wagner won't be able to run. They shouldn't be able to throw on FIU's secondary or have the time to throw.
When FIU coach Ron Turner talked about getting more running backs involved, that's a sign he feels pretty good about this game. Turner, like most coaches, tends to be risk averse. In a must win game, he wouldn't give Anthon Samuel his first post-concussion game action at FIU or Alfonso Randolph his first base offense snaps after last year's knee injury unless he felt Snuggie secure about his chances.
Georgetown didn't run on Wagner. FIU better. If you can't run on Wagner, how do you expect to run on Alabama-Birmingham or Rice? And if you can't run, that drops a Sub Zero full of pressure on the back of freshman quarterback Alex McGough or junior E.J. Hilliard each week.
Either Richard Leonard gets a return touchdown or FIU gets prime field position from Wagner avoiding him.
FIU scheduled Wagner for a reason. Panthers get what they want and what they need, 31-9.
That's the opinion of one man descended from a former slave and the disowned Irish woman who married the former slave. I could be wrong.
What: FIU vs. the University of Miami, and the resurrection of what was repeatedly called a "crosstown rivalry" by everyone ignoring Miami-Dade geography.
When: Sept. 22, 2018 at Sun Life Stadium for UM's home football game. November 2019 at a date and site to be determined for FIU's home game (Can FIU get the 305-No-Fault second deck on La Cage by then?).
The money: For the $500,000 UM will give FIU in 2018, UM gets a probable win and a better crowd than any other probable win could draw. For the $500,000 FIU will give UM in 2019, FIU gets its best home crowd of the season.
What else: Both University of Miami president Donna Shalala and UM athletic director Blake James said each schools' non-football coaches have been "encouraged" to schedule the other school. That doesn't mean it's automatic (not betting on baseball).
James said, "While we don't have other dates to announce in other sports today, (FIU executive director of sports and entertainment) Pete (Garcia) and I have agreed in all our other programs to continue to work to schedule each other because of our belief in the great things it brings to the student-athletes at Florida International University and the University of Miami."
Like less travel to and from road games, fewer missed classes and more travel savings which, Garcia said, could be used in other ways to benefit student-athletes.
Question: Will both schools be one football coach down the line by the time those games are played?
Miami's athletic Cold War thaws. South Florida sports Sadat will shake hands with Begin.
FIU and the University of Miami officially announce resumption of their muscular rivalry Friday morning. Football draws the most attention, of course. There's mutual benefit -- UM gets a home opponent other than Florida State or Virginia Tech that should draw something other than heat to Sun Life Stadium. FIU gets a guaranteed excellent crowd with a home game against UM, wherever the game's played. Both get a road game without all the road game travel expenses.
But extending the hugfest to other sports also can give everyone the warm streudel feeling.
Basketball: anything that puts a charge in college-affailiated basketball in South Florida should be pursued. The difference in the ACC and Conference USA matters none. You can put the UM in the ACC but you can't take the Hurricanes out of South Florida. Neither gender fills The Branch in Coral Gables. FIU improved its atmosphere and crowd last year, but still needs opponents with buzz included. I never understood UM's aversion to coming west.
Baseball: They recruit the same high talent area. The coaches don't like each other. Who's up first?
Women's soccer: No travel, a few bucks better at the gate, maybe a litle nastiness. The usual reasons...
Track & field/Swimming & Diving: Little in college sports provide the sustained sizzle with periodic intense jolts than a rivalry dual meet in these sports.
Sort of like the US vs. USSR on the track during The Cold War.
The obvious choice for starting Saturday against Wagner is freshman Alex McGough. Forget the practices, in the game, McGough was flat out better than E.J. Hilliard. Both got hampered by wide receiver/tight end drops, but the offense worked better with McGough.
FIU coach Ron Turner's still doing the political public dance. Or, maybe he's truly conflicted.
"We had planned going into the game to put Alex (McGough) in, either the third or fourth series. We ended up putting him in during the fifth series," says Turner via Conference USA. "We had no idea if we were going to keep him in there or bring E.J. back, but he (McGough) got in there and seemed to give us a little boost. He was doing a nice job of reading everything well. He was playing with great poise so we kept him in.
"Moving forward, I can see us using both quarterbacks. I’m not sure which one is going to start this week, but I can see using both of them. I still have a lot of confidence in E.J. He has to play like he practices. He had been making all the right checks and getting us in and out of plays."
Good news: FIU isn't scheduled to play Western Kentucky, which still has enough Brohm (head coach Jeff) to feel their Petrino: 708 yards of offense and 59 points on defending Mid-American Conference champion Bowling Green.
Bad news: Alabama-Birmingham took the switch to Troy, Big Mama-style, 48-10. UAB was my pick to be Conference USA's Hot, Steaming Pile of Detroit this year. That trip to Legion Field might not be the duckwalk for FIU I thought it could be.
"My expectations are really high," UAB coach Bill Clark said in his first game since taking the Blazers top job. "For us, it's a lot easier to teach after a win. You can teach after a loss, but I would rather not experience the loss. We came right into meetings today and said this is good, but not great. We want to be great.
The depth chart for this week's game against Wagner looks the same as last week's. Which means it's about as worthless as a tailor in a nudist colony.
It still has junior E.J. Hilliard at quarterback over freshman Alex McGough. It also has freshman Alex Gardner third behind junior Lamarq Caldwell and redshirt junior Shane Coleman. Coleman didn't have a carry while Gardner led the team in carries and yards. Clearly, especially against Wagner, start McGough and Gardner just to see what they can do from the start.
And, I hear Monday, McGough took the lead role in workouts.
FIU's defense ranks second in sacks (six, behind Baylor's eight) and fifth in tackles for loss (10, behind Baylor and TCU's 13, each). Richard Leonard leads the nation in total return yards, 208, and is fifth in punt return average (29.6 yards per return). It bears repeating -- FIU had only five punt or kickoff returns that exceeded 29 yards at all in 2013. Two of those were punt returns against Bethune-Cookman, so perhaps punt coverage stands as Bethune's main special teams' bete noire.
Hilliard did scramble for FIU's only third down conversion. Last year's worst third down team -- second worst since 1997 according to the Associated Press' Tim Reynolds -- again is last so far: one of 16. But three of five on fourth down, so...
RUNNING THE SPREAD
Few games this week scare the sports books the way Wagner-FIU does. Don't be surprised if a few books stay away from this game like it needs to go to the clinic.
Lower rank FBS team that just lost to an FCS team at home playing an FCS team. Wagner's coming off 3-7, probably a mediocre FCS team at best, but you can bet some books took a hit when Wagner played FAU close two years ago. The FBS team either will be starting a true freshman quarterback in his second college game or starting the junior who got yanked one quarter into the season opener. Wagner's been a dependable whipping boy for FBS schools, yet played FAU tough two years ago. Two years ago, different players, different school, still it's another reason this game's scarier than an IRS vampire to the books.
Also, they took a bit of a hit last week on FIU. The Panthers opened as a 1-point favorite last week. Betting on Bethune moved the line all the way to FIU being a 3-point underdog by late Thursday. That being the line at kickoff says the early betting was heavily Bethune with the later betting split. FIU covered the final spread, losing by only two. But everybody who got down on Bethune before the line swung to Wildcats by 2 collected.
The game will be on the Conference USA Digital Network. The next game on the American Sports Network, I recommend muting the TV and putting on Mike Levine and Pete Pelegrin. It'll get weeks to get Saturday's TV game commentary infection out of my TiVo.
The return of Richard Leonard as kick and punt returner gave an immense boost to FIU both in making up for field position created by poor punting and shortening the field for the offense. FIU's only touchdown followed Leonard's 71-yard punt return. Without Leonard's other punt returns, FIU's defensive stands eventually would've meant forcing field goal attempts instead of punts. He kept the field balanced.
For his 202 total return yards -- 54 on one kickoff return, an FIU-record 148 on five punt returns -- Leonard received the Conference USA Special Teams Player of the Week award and honorable mention notice from the College Football Performance Awards as an All-Purpose Performer.
This weekend seemed to be about FIU football down the road -- current freshmen, future opponents, future players.
Wagner's 1-0, by the way, after a resounding 21-3 win over Georgetown. Behind an offensive line that's combined for 100 games and 86 starts, Fort Lauderdale Dillard graduate Otis Wright ran for 73 yards and two touchdowns. Wright took 24 carries to do that, though. Also, Hoya football was one of Wagner's three victims last year. Translation: FIU should be 1-1 when everybody heads for church (or the church of the NFL) Sunday morning.
Among FIU's 2015 recruitng commits, The Quarterbacking Alexanders both came out on top. Maurice Alexander threw two touchdown passes in Booker T. Washington's 19-7 late night win against Tucker (Ga.). Christian Alexander completed 7 of 13 for 140 yards, including 9 and 62-yard touchdowns, as Lakeland Christian crushed Winter Garden Foundation Academy 41-0 in just under three quarters (the coaches agreed to end the game after a lightning delay with 4:48 left in the third quarter).
Running back Terry Bennett ran for a pair of 11-yard touchdowns as Jacksonville Atlantic Coast drubbed Jacksonville Jackson 49-6.
Defensive lineman Milord Juste forced a fumble and had two sacks against Lake Worth John I. Leonard for a dominant Palm Beach Gardens defense: 21-0.
Former FIU defensive tackle Isame Faciane's on the Minnesota pratice squad after being one of the Saturday cuts. Former FIU cornerback Sam Miller also was a Saturday cut, but hasn't show up on anybody's taxi squad, which can now carry 10 players instead of just eight as in past years.
The highest paid assistant coach in FIU football history earns his paycheck Saturday on The Money Pit at The Cage.
Defensive coordinator Josh Conklin, now entering his third season of coaching at the FBS level, contractually makes $200,000. And, right from jump street this season, Conklin's looking at scheming and adjusting to deal with a ground game that both pushed and Punk'd FIU for 311 yards on 52 carries. Put the sack numbers with the passing yards, as the NFL does and colleges should, too, and that's 324 yards on 50 carries, 6.48 yards per carry.
It's the same cast of characters coming from Daytona. In the backfield,there's quarterback Quentin Williams, running back Anthony Jordan and Cary White. Up front, four of five offensive line starters return, led by FCS All-American center Andrew Edouard. Last year's game was Conklin's fourth FBS game with a 4-3 defense. He ran a 4-2-5 and a 3-4 while defensive coordinator at The Citadel before spending a year with Tennessee's 3-4. I thought it showed in the lack of adjustments made. Or maybe he felt handcuffed and strapped down by his personnel.
Last year, Conklin didn't have defensive tackle Isame Faciane for the first quarter as Faciane served punishment for an unspecified violation of team rules. Now, no Faciane at all, no Greg Hickman and Edouard's still there.
(Quick digression: Faciane played in Minnesota's final preseason game. He didn't register a defensive statistic. I think he was kept around for that final preseason game, when the starters play the least, if at all, and could be headed for a practice squad. Same with cornerback Sam Miller in Buffalo, although if he's going to make it, he needs to show something on special teams. Miller made three tackles on defense, got a tackle assist on special teams.)
Edouard's not huge, 6-2, 295, but is aged by the maturity of his game. In raw bulk, any of FIU's defensive tackles match up well with him, although 6-5 Lars Koht looks more like a tall, long-limbed defensive end than a defensive tackle. If FIU's linebackers start having to fight off Edouard and his pals, to quote my former Chi-Chi's coworker Jeff, "It's going to be a long night in the gym."
Young linebackers also worry me. For this game, mind you. The expert way Bethune runs its option at speed can have inexperienced linebackers doing the electric football dance -- running in all different directions, into each other, spinning in place. Thinking long term, get the best talent out there and let it learn. Besides, you might luck into a turnover or big tackle for loss, although it's not dumb luck, it's the kind of luck that doesn't happen to those of lesser ability. Talent doesn't always have to know what it's doing to make plays.
The Wildcats averaged exactly 20 passes per game last year. They don't want to throw 20 times against FIU. If you see 20 passes from Bethune, you'll see two interceptions (at least) from FIU and a Panthers win. First down is the important down. Third down's called "The Money Down," but do a good enough job on first down, third down's easy money short yardage or you're stealing money by moving the sticks on second down. There's only so many third and longs Bethune will convert on the ground and they know it. A succession of first down stops will force the ground bound Wildcats to the air on enough second and longs that it plays to FIU's strength, the secondary.
FIU should be better on first down just out of diversity. Head coach Ron Turner said he'll remain the one calling the plays. I think if he's truly more confident in his offense, FIU won't be so predictable on first down (how many times did they NOT run Lamarq Caldwell off tackle on first down?). Domino effect -- better on first down, better on third down, longer drives, fresher defense at the end of the game.
Bethune's got a man-aged if not man-sized defense. Presumably, this year, betwen guards Jordan Budwig and Jordan White and center Donald Senat, somebody will block Wildcats defensive tackle Rony Barrow. Barrow's only 250 pounds but he was practically teleporting himself into the FIU backfield last year. I see FIU getting a push for the running game and can create a pocket for quarterback E.J. Hilliard. The line's got pride. More importantly, it's got another year of growth in the game and under the skin.
The full integration of tight end Jonnu Smith happened after last year's Bethune loss. He caught two passes for 9 yards. Expanding his role gets some first downs. Bethune's got size in the secondary, but they've got a bite size weakside linebacker in 6-1, 208 Jason Smith and not much depth across the position group. A wide receiver set with 6-4 Dominique Rhymes and 6-4 Richard Burrows on the outisde, 6-2, 200 Glenn Coleman in the slot with 6-3, 230 Smith coming from his tight end position should give Bethune 99 problems.
I see both teams moving the ball well. Lots of possessions, points. If the decisive play comes on special teams, it's FIU's night. Otherwise, I'd go with the first thing I wrote for the football special section: Bethune, 34-31.
But that's one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.
Saturday's Bethune-Cookman vs. FIU game can be seen on WBFS Channel 33, but on one-hour delay. The broadcast of the 7 p.m. game will begin at 8 p.m. WBFS just got permission to show the game so the website schedule hasnt' been updated as of 2:45 p.m.
Some time over the last 11 months, somebody in the athletic department got slapped with good sense. Or, maybe slapped with good numbers. Or, maybe slapped with a sense of customer relations.
Somebody needed to be slapped with something. But you learn from your mistakes and it seems FIU did.
I just spoke with Michael Shorter, head of the Broward chapter of the Bethune-Cookman Alumni Association. Shorter's happy. Not Pharrell bouncing happy -- that might come Saturday if Bethune wins -- but happy with his interaction this year with FIU.
Shorter said someone from the ticket office reached out to Bethune-Cookman's alumni groups in Broward and Dade. The chapters went in together and bought a bloc of tickets and will be seated between the 30 and the 40-yard line. Shorter's bought some other tickets himself. You can be sure other BCU alums did the same. With BCU expecting another good team, Shorter expects the Wildcats to bring an even larger crowd than they did last year. That game led FIU home games in visiting team single game tickets sold (844) and overall single game sales (2,634).
(Technically, the East Carolina game's 3,103 were the most sold for a single game. Don't eat the manufactured, processed government cheese. The single game ticket sales listed under Internal was 2,392. For the Marshall game, the other game FIU was desperate for ticket sales to keep the NCAA bouncers fining them a cover charge or tossing them, Internal was listed as 1,094. For the first four home games? 551, 534, 698 and 244. Seemed a lot of sudden support from a different FIU pocket. I sent an e-mail to the highest reaches of Athletics asking what sales would be classified as Internal. The e-mail must have been lost...)
FIU got a great night last year from the Bethune-Cookman game despite itself. Hosting Bethune brings in the school's legendary band and a (perceived) beatable opponent from a school with an unusually loyal alumni base. They're bonded not just by the shared college experience, but to the school and each other by the shared Black Folks In America experience.
This game screamed for FIU to do two things: aggressively market the game, especially in South Florida's black communities, to high school and junior high bands of any ethnicity; and keep Bethune's fans happy. Treat them as Kerim Bey would.
The marketing department was in transition at the time. A unit's at its weakest when in transition, especially when transitioning from "one grad assistant" to "fully staffed."
Despite Bethune's win, FIU left a bad taste in the mouth of some Bethune-Cookman fans, particularly the alumni. Shorter talked to me the night before the game. He'd told me when the association saw their tickets would put them around the 10-yard line, they asked for something better. Let the young people sit there. The alums, grown folks who Shorter said are more serious about watching the game, like to be closer to the 50.
Can't do it, he said FIU told him. Those seats aren't available. He e-mailed me the night of the game, saltier and hotter than my fried rice. He saw the sections he requested they be allowed to buy sitting empty all night.
Someone in the school, involved in fund-raising, said exactly what I said last year about the little things at games. These people aren't at FIU every day. Their first hand experience with FIU, perhaps their first strong impression, comes largely from sporting events despite such events' tangential relationship to the overall university.
Anyway, see you folks Saturday, one way or the other.
Around 11 a.m., I heard that an e-mail making its way around Parking & Transportation said the Epic Festival of music scheduled for the Fair Expo Center Saturday has been cancelled. And an 11:07 a.m. Tweet from the Epic Festival says Miami-Dade Fire Rescue shut Epic down. On another website, Epic tells ticket holders something stinks while telling them refunds will be coming.
The follow up to what I heard was that this should open up the normal tailgating areas at Tamiami Park for Saturday's FIU football season opener against Bethune-Cookman. More information should be coming later today.
By the way, FIU's going all out on the freebies Saturday to pull in a crowd for this nationally-televised game. It's what they did for the East Carolina and Marshall games last year to make sure the NCAA didn't slap them for light attendance.
They don't have to worry about the Bethune end. Bethune sold the most single game visitors tickets of FIU's six visiting schools in 2013. FIU's worried about getting the FIU crowd. To that end, FIU's throwing free tickets around town -- hey, if you can't sell 'em, distribute them -- talking free food for students and tuition giveaways. As "One Froggy Evening" demonstrated, if they said "free beer," FIU and Bethune would be playing to a packed and swaying house.
In the first place, the offense is done as a classic I-formation or pro set with two wide receivers, a tight end, a fullback and a halfback/tailback. But FIU runs one-back, double tight end or one-back, three-wide (quarterback under center or not) more often than either the I or pro set.
Freshman Alex Gardner's listed third behind junior Lamarq Caldwell and redshirt junior Shane Coleman. Don't be surprised if that resembles Saturday's playing time about as much as I resemble Antonio Sabates (either one). Caldwell's No. 1 for now, Gardner's No. 2.
Redshirt juniors Dominique Rhymes and Richard Burrows are listed as the top two wide receivers. When I asked Turner about Burrows rise, he said Burrows has been the most consistent receiver in camp along with Rhymes. Turner said they'll run a lot of guys in there, but it's still interesting to see fifth-year senior Glenn Coleman third at one of the wideout spots and not see redshirt junior Clinton Taylor and Fred Porter among the top six. Freshmen Dennis Turner and Thomas Owens are there, though.
On defense, FIU hopes they've got more depth along the defensive line than last year. They've got more bodies available. At one tackle spot, they list Leonard Washington, Imarjaye Albury (sat out 2013, transfer) and Marques Cheeks (sat out, academics).
See my last post about the linebackers. Lots of talent, not a lot of age. One outside linebacker spot lists an "or" between sophomore De'Shawn Hazziez and freshman Anthony Wint. Saturday could find redshirt freshman-sophomore-freshman linebackers trying to peel the onion of Bethune's option attack. In the secondary, behind strong safety Demarkus Perkins, we find freshman Shemarke Spence.
I'm not sure why redshirt junior Richard Leonard is listed at the top of the punt returners, but isn't listed among the kickoff returners. The College Football Performance Awards put him on their national kickoff returner watch list, remembering Leonard's 29.2 yards per kickoff return in 2012. If you believe the depth chart, "watch list" will mean he'll be watching others do the job he does quite well.
If you believe the depth chart.
Perhaps redshirt sophomore punter Chris Ayers found health in the offseason. He never seemed right last year. Sophomore Austin Taylor's the kicker.
Do you understand the meager compensation given some of our blue collar bretheren who wreck their backs doing things like setting up FIU Stadium (surrounding Ocean Bank Field) for the start of classes and the football season? Do you know how little disposable income the average college-affiliated football player has?
After pondering that bit of John L. Lewis, take in these tidbits from FIU football practice. Yes, I'm still banned, although FIU coach Ron Turner did answer a few questions from me on the Conference USA coaches conference call.
Don't be surprised if FIU says to heck with it and comes out with a linebacking corps of freshman Anthony Wint, sophomore Treyvon Williams and redshirt freshman Jordan Guest. Why not? Go with talent, give it some experience and see what you wind up with at the end of the season.
In answering why things should be different this year defensively against Bethune, Turner said the defense should execute the scheme better, but also said, "We'll have some freshmen and redshirt freshmen out there at times..."
Also, it could be a family affair on the corners with junior Jeremiah McKinnon moving ahead of senior Randy Harvey to play with cousin redshirt junior Richard Leonard. Bethune's ground-air split comes straight out of World War I, so the better tackler should start Saturday.
Another redshirt junior Richard, wide receiver Burrows, could very well start with redshirt junior Dominique Rhymes. When FIU's got two tight ends on the field, it'll be most often sophomore Jonnu Smith and redshirt Ya'keem Griner. That gives them the option of putting Smith in the slot, so they can run plays out of two-wide, double tight end or three-wide formations without switching personnel. That'll help if FIU tries to run an increased tempo, which I'd bet they will. When they want to go three-wide with Smith at tight end, expect DeAndre Jasper and T.J. Lowder to get the most looks as the third wideout with Burrows and Rhymes. That is, until freshman Dennis Turner shows something in a game. If he does, move him to the top of that list.
Not sure where fifth-year senior Glenn Coleman fits into everything.
Turner also said on the conference call that while junior E.J. Hilliard will start Saturday against Bethune, freshman Alex McGough could see playing time "in the second, third or fourth series" or in the second quarter.
Junior Lamarq Caldwell remains the top running back, but, sometimes, they'll do the smart thing of putting big, durable Caldwell at fullback and dynamic freshman Alex Gardner at tailback. That gives you a good blocking back along with two backs who can catch passes. When FIU wants to go heavy, look for redshirt freshman Jordan Gibbs, converted from linebacker to fullback, as the lead blocker for Caldwell.
After seeing how some of FIU's 2015 commits looked Saturday against top high school competition, if FIU gets them to Signing Day next February, somebody needs to give running backs coach Kerry Dixon II a raise from $96,000.
While this year's model of FIU footballin' Panthers wraps up training camp, with classes and Bethune-Cookman nigh, plenty of news came from other eras of Panthers football.
Friday night, Lakeland Christian quarterback Christian Alexander, a three-star FIU commit, threw for 215 yards and a touchdown as his team crushed George Jenkins 33-3. Alexander's school lost star running back T.J. Simmons in the scoreless first quarter, then took over the game in the second quarter.
Saturday afternoon began with Central High walking onto the grilliron -- not gridiron, grilliron, Equator hot on the field -- of Hoover (Ala.) High and quickly stumbling over special teams. A blocked punt started Hoover's first possession at the Central 6. Safety Olin Cushion got in on the tackles that kept the first and second down runs out of the end zone. Hoover eventually flubbed the field goal attempt. Another Central special teams blunder and a blown call on a Hoover fumble preceded a Hoover touchdown. Without the earlier run stops, Central would've been down 14-0, on the road with only the fact that they hadn't been sauteed on that scalding field the only positive.
Late in the first half, Cushion intercepted an overthrown sideline bomb to end another Hoover scoring threat. He showed an instinct for the big play when he made the risky move of turning into the end zone to get room for a U-turn that put him behind some blockers. He slipped before the Central 20, so the decision didn't work as far as field position, but it wasn't as if he tried to make a big play when there wasn't one there to be made. Bad luck, not bad judgment.
About the time Central kicked the last minute field goal for a 24-21 win, Detroit waived former FIU defensive tackle Greg Hickman. A few hours later, the other half of FIU's 2013 defensive tackle pair, Isame Faciane, didn't play for Minnesota in the third preseason game against Kansas City. That's a sign that Chef-to-be Faciane's cooking career might get started sooner than he wants. He might be kept around to play the fourth preseason game. Same with former FIU cornerback Sam Miller, although Miller did play for Buffalo against Tampa Bay.
Saturday night belonged to FIU's Homestead-by-way-of-Booker T. commits in their season opener against Chesapeake (Va.) Oscar Smith High. In his first game as Booker T. Washington quarterback after transferring from Homestead High for his senior year, Maurice Alexander went 22 of 25 for 365 yards and five touchdowns.
Before someone pooh-poohs that the numbers got inflated by numerous quick hitches and screens taken for big yardage, consider a few things:
*Alexander did go deep for the 53-yard touchdown that began the benediction for the competitive phase of the game and hit the receiver in stride.
*the three incompletions went drop, overthrow, underthrow. That would be solid accuracy under fire if all 25 throws were hitches and screens.
*Alexander's release and velocity gave receivers room to run after the catch. The ESPNU crew commented on those assets while saying Ron Turner would be a happy man next fall.
Alexander looks like he can have a tendency to throw less an ideal pass than an ideal pitch -- hard, low in the strike zone -- but those passes obviously remained catchable (only three incompletions, remember?). In college, those passes also run into defensive linemen arms more often. His failed scramble on fourth down looked like a possibly rash decision, yet the wide receiver on that side failed to make the one block on which success or failure hinged.
FIU commit Ocie Rose, another Homstead transfer, got a second half interception that he took back for a touchdown wiped out by a penalty.
I didn't get to see much of FIU lineman commit out of Jacksonville Trinity Christian left tackle Deion Eakins, in Trinity's 17-0 loss to Buford (Ga.). Trinity couldn't get much going on offense and the Booker T. game kept Lead Game status on my TV. For me to discuss Eakins' performance would overreach the sample size of plays I saw.
Mike Levine, who does some fill-in work for WQAM, most likely will handle the play-by-play duties on FIU's football broadcasts on 1210ESPN Deportes. The deal "isn't set in stone" yet according to his agent.
UPDATE: Friday afternoon, FIU officially announced the radio team of Levine and Pete Pelegrin for the broadcasts.
Levine has handled the regular radio play-by-play duties on weekly South Florida high school football games as well as University of Miami baseball games for three seasons. He's also been the substitute UM basketball play-by-play guy.
Pelegrin's the obvious choice for radio as nobody else with radio or television experience has his long-term perspective on the program.
Whatever the display inside FIU Stadium on Showed Them The Money Field, all agree that FIU's tailgating masses do a Miami school proud. Strong volume, both numbers and bass, tremendous enthusiasm. I love to do a tailgate walk before a game to get the creative juices bouncing. Many a synapse has been fired in the athletic department trying to figure out how to get all that to transfer from out there to inside La Cage on a regular basis.
Now, the tailgating has been shaved down to the Lot 6 strip on the east side of the stadium, says the layout for the Aug. 30 season opener against Bethune-Cookman.
No Tamiami Park. Florida Gun Show Miami is at the Fuchs Pavilion Aug. 30 and 31. The Children's Trust Family Expo is all over the Youth Fair grounds Sept. 13, the day of the noon home game against Pitt. The following week, there's a Wellness and Lifestyle Expo from Friday through Sunday, which encompasses the Louisville game. There's another gun show Nov. 1, the day of the noon Rice game.
The visiting tailgate is east of the Blue Garage. Kind of breaks up the energy center around FIU Stadium. And I'm not sure the smell from the soul food from the Bethune-Cookman tailgaters can waft all the way to The Cage.
FIU believers, here's your chance to back up your belief with some bucks. Or, just give you something to talk about if you run into Brent Musberger or Al Michaels at a party.
As often stated here, only serious bettors tend to get down on FIU games, so the linesmakers tend to be pretty facile in their analysis of said contests. So, there's usually value to be had.
The website 5dimes.com, to which I was alerted by 940WINZ sports radio host Andy Slater, has posted the first line I've seen on FIU's season opener Aug. 30 against Bethune-Cookman. The site rates the Wildcats 4.5-point favorites over the Panthers in the Cat Fight at The Cage.
Last year, FIU opened as the favorite, but Bethune went off as the favorite at kickoff and covered in a 34-13 win. The over/under in that game was 47, by the way.
Also on that site are money line odds on the Conference USA title game. Marshall's the favorite at -450, meaning you'd have to bet $450 on Marshall to win $100. FIU's the longest shot with a +15000 money line, meaning if you laid down $100 on the Panthers, you get $15,000 if they win the Conference USA title.
MySportsBook's money line has Marshall at -500 with FIU and UTEP at +11,000. As I said in Monday's column, I don't see FIU as the worst team in the East Division, much less in the entire conference. I don't see them as conference champs, either, but at those numbers, well, you probably wasted money on worse things this week so plunk a few bucks down.
LVH Superbook and Gaming Today also puts Man O' War odds on Marshall, too, 1-6, the biggest favorite among the conferences listed. FIU and UTEP are the longest shots at 100-1. BetUSA.com puts Marshall at 1-5 with FIU and UTEP at 110-1.