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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Frazierleft 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ladies first, on Friday night against Old Dominion, getting a 2-1 win on two goals by fifth-year senior Chelsea Leiva. Leiva's got six of the 11 goals scored this season for 6-4 FIU. I'm not sure how she wasn't a preseason All-Conference USA pick, but she'll be a postseason one. When Charlotte comes to Camp Mitch Sunday afternoon, they'll find an FIU team that's won four of its last five, with only one goal allowed by freshman goalie Nevena Stojakovic.
The gentlemen hope to follow up Saturday night in the other FIU football game against Alabama-Birmingham. A record of 3-3-1 describes erratic, especially with two of the three wins coming against teams ranked at the time, Michigan and San Diego State. That'll help FIU's RPI should the Panthers need to get into the NCAA tournament as an at-large team, which is likely. Conference USA's loaded with Chompers.
FIU coach Scott Calabrese inherited this schedule, but said, "As I start to design future schedules, that's going to be important. We have to have a good RPI. Winning Conference USA with New Mexico, Charlotte and Old Dominion, which are all Top 25 teams, there's no guarantee you'll win the tournament."
Also, "the good thing is when you play really good teams and you make mistakes, you know about it immediately. They don't let you get away with things," Calabrese said. "You find out a lot about your team which, when you look at the non-conference schedule and what it's purpose is to prepare you for your conference. So far, we've made major strides in that direction."
Calabrese knew FIU possessed the technically talented kind of players that could play the possession, attacking game he wanted to play. He just had to season them with defensive responsibility.
"I think we take less risks at the back (than the start of the season)," he said. "That was evident in the Florida Gulf Coast game (Wednesday's 2-1 win). There were times this season where we would try to play a pass in an area if we lose the ball, the risk of losing the ball is much greater than the return of just possessing it around the back. We still have that tendency, but we're starting to move away from it."
The obvious offensive focal point is senior forward Quentin Albrecht, last week's Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week (the conference apparently lost his video highlights before their weekly TV show, depriving fans from seeing Albrecht's bicycle kick winner against San Diego State). But when I asked for two players FIU needs strong games from each night he named redshirt freshman Donald Tomlinson and junior Danny Gonzalez.
"(Tomlinson) is doing such an importand job in our midfield and doing it so well," Calabrese said. "He is our anchor, playing the (Sergio) Busquets-(Claude) Makelele role where he breaks up the play, he plays simple and quickly, he gives other players the opportunity to go forward because he accepts his role as a holding midfield player. He has been a really important part of what we're doing and he's not the guy you notice. Unless you're the coach.
As for Gonzalez, he said, "We're trying to play a possession-oriented style, attacking soccer and he's able to do all those things and he couples it with an exceptional work rate. He's the box-to-box midfielder. If you want to control the middle of the park, which ultimately gives you your foothold in the game, those two players need to play well. So far, they have been."
Getting redshirt junior cornerback/kick returner Richard Leonard back injected danger into FIU's return game. It gave defensive coordinator Josh Conklin options, especially when defending the run because Richard Leonard can fly. And, Saturday, ithe speed Leonard shows on defense and vision he shows on returns might be put to use on offense.
Which is why Leonard could be the player on whom FIU upset hopes hinge against Alabama-Birmingham.
This isn't what I would've said a month ago when I picked UAB as one of FIU's victims this season.
Alabama's played Mr. Potter to Alabama-Birmingham's Bailey Building & Loan since UAB started football in the 1990s. Alabama, with Nick Saban on the way, blocked UAB's hiring of Jimbo Fisher (you can hear Fisher's "Phew" all the way from Tallahassee). The Tuscaloosa-centric Board of Trustees blocked UAB's attempt at an on-campus stadium, leaving the Blazers playing in 87-year-old Legion Field. UAB's other facilities got a needed upgrade only this past offseason after the hiring of Bill Clark.
Clark's got the perpetually underachieving Blazers playing offensively up to speed -- literally. UAB's 17.2 yards per completion as a team and wide receiver JJ Nelson's 26.8 yards per catch jump out at you, but that all works off the run. UAB's run the ball 149 times in three games and thrown it only 86 times. With running backs Jordan Howard and D.J. Vinson averaging a combined 4.8 yards per carry, the threat of the run opens up space for Nelson, Josh McGee and tight end Gerald Everett.
These days in college football, good offenses eventually eat. You just have to keep them out of the buffet line. That's where Leonard comes in on defense. His and Jeremiah McKinnon's ability to single cover UAB's wideouts can allow the front seven plus strong safety Demarkus Perkins to do what they've done to three of four rushing attacks so far this season.
Don't expect Leonard and McKinnon to zero out the UAB streakers. That's not realistic for any cornerback short of All-America status. They just have to prevent a total strafing that would prohibit FIU from even attempting to have a balanced offensive attack.
And either the defense gives the offense a short field with some turnovers, scores on turnovers or Leonard needs to returning as many Hunter Mullins punts as he can. Mullins made the Ray Guy Award Watch List as one of the nation's best punters. Like Guy, Mullins can outkick his coverage and I'm not talking about his girlfriend. Alabama A&M took a Mullins punt back 77 yards. The Blazers cover kickoffs better, allowing 21.7 per return. Similarly, don't head for the bathroom early when FIU punts. Nelson's got more flat out speed than Louisville's James Quick, whose shifty speed didn't allow him to take full advantage of some holes in FIU's coverage.
Accepting the premise that even a good defensive job on UAB keeps the Blazers tractable in the mid-20s, that still means FIU's offense needs more juice that its shown in the last seven quarters against FBS competition. Don't be surprised if that's where Leonard comes in on offense.
FIU's had one, real, multi-play touchdown drive against a non-Wagner opponent this year and that was in a quasi-hurryup situation against Pitt. Otherwise, there's been a 9-yard drive and two two-play drives. FIU's last in Conference USA in average possession time.
FIU needs to increase offensive production. Neither quarterback, Alex McGough or E.J. Hilliard, gets it done consistently. The run game breaks off a big gain, then breaks down the next two or three plays. Should the Panthers try harder to create long drives? Or, do they throw a few more chips on the Big Play line and hope the long drives just wind up coming because UAB's defense isn't Louisville's or Pitt's?
That's why you might see Leonard, FIU's most dynamic player this year, on offense. The same vision, elusiveness and acceleration that makes him a threat on kickoffs can do the same on jet sweeps, reverses or bubble screens. It would be a logical thing to try.
UAB has started slowly in each of its three games. If FIU can get something going early, the Blazers might panic despite themselves.
Even if they do, I see them calming down by halftime. Their habit of slow starts doesn't look as self-destructive as FIU's habit of giving up points in economy-size chunks. That's a problem against a team that likes to score that way.
UAB 44, FIU 21.
But that's one the opinion of one Hoosier descended from Kentuckian grandparents (proving evolution). I could be wrong.
The football team's no longer tempting claustrophobia on a one-engine plane designed to fly with more motors than that.
They got put on the bus, Gus, sent to a mall to eat dinner while a new plane was flown in from a few hours away, according to FIU sources. The team might not get into its hotel until 10:30. Luckily, this isn't an early afternoon kick, but rather 3:30 p.m.
FIU's been using Allegiant Air, to other airlines as a food truck parked on Meridian is to Lincoln Road, for years. This isn't the first issue that's delayed travel the night before a football game. But, they're cheap.
Imagine a shirtless, sweaty college football team that's been confined to a plane without air conditioning and, indeed, without enough jet propulsion. After over a half hour of losing water weight, they're told only one engine on the plane is working so, hey, got to get a new plane.
That's Friday afternoon with FIU football and Allegiant Air, the charter company FIU still uses. FIU chartered with Allegiant. I flew commercial through Charlotte. I'll likely be in Birmingham before the team leaves Fort Lauderdale Executive Jet Center.
This isn't ideal preparation for a road game against a talented team (see, "2012, FIU vs. Louisiana-Layfayette")
The Board of Trustees Athletics Committee meets every few months to get reports on the athletic department’s doings from athletic department people with titles. There’s public discussion of those doings between the suits on the Committee and the Athletics Titles. The Suits and Titles exchange pats on the back or harrumphs. The Titles vow to improve. Then, the Suits get coffee as a slightly different set of Suits comes in for the next BOT Committee meeting. The Titles whoosh back to the west side of Camp Mitch.
The value in these meetings come in the chunks of information or analysis the Titles lay on the Suits. After a moment of feistiness from committee chairman Jorge Arrizurieta regarding the minutes of the February meeting, the Sept. 10 meeting carried a happy feeling. Not quite Up With People happy, but it was a Prozac-and-Percoset party compared to the last two Athletics Committee meetings I attended.
STUFF A CASUAL FAN MIGHT CARE ABOUT
A committee member happy to see the FIU vs. the University of Miami football series revived asked if FIU was working on any kind of football relationship with Florida State or Florida.
“We’re working with all the major schools around the country,” FIU athletic director Pete Garcia said. “We wanted home-and-homes. We feel we can bring those games here. As you’re seeing Pittsburgh this week, Louisville’s coming here to play, we feel at this point in our development, we want to do home-and-homes. We’re willing to play anybody anywhere as long as we do home-and-homes.”
STUFF A HARDCORE FAN MIGHT CARE ABOUT
Garcia admitted sophomore Stephanie Texeira, the softball team’s best player as a freshman, played a larger than usual role in the selection of Gator Rebhan as FIU’s new softball coach.
“Obviously, when we go through the process of selecting a head coach, for the most part, you don’t talk to the student athletes that much about the search process. This was a little bit different,” Garcia said. “She was very adamant about what they wanted. The night we selected our next softball coach, she was actually sitting in her car about two hours outside my office waiting to hear if Gator was going to be our next coach.”
Early on in these things, the athletic department presents a proudly FIU example of the student-athlete ideal. It gives the committee a hot chocolate feeling inside before getting an ice bucket challenge of real problems elsewhere. Texeira got the call for this one. It won’t be her last.
Texeira pointed out her Mom-and-Dad home is only 15 minutes away but she stays at FIU. She extolled the Student-Athlete Academic Center (SAAC), the first of many attaboys for the SAAC on this day.
She went on to talk about Rebhan: “Gator has been my mentor for 6 years. I played for him in travel ball. I was fortunate enough to have a coach who was able to push me, to challenge me, he did everything he could to push me to the best that I can be. And it’s not like he picks on me. He picks on everybody. And everybody knows he does it because he cares.”
Then, with “We have a Turtle (baseball coach Thomas). Now, we have a Gator,” Garcia introduced Rebhan.
“This is a dream come true for somebody who was born and raised in Miami, coached the last 20 years here to be a coach at FIU,” Rebhan said. “It is an honor. I think the admiintration and the support of everybody to give me this opportunity.”
He stated, “One of the goals here is I want to keep the local talent from leaving. We have so many great players here in our backyard that for years we let get away. That’s one thing I want to focus on – keep our local players here. Girls like Stephanie, All-Americans, we keep them here, it builds excitement and fills the stands.”
He also thanked the administration for the new softball stadium. Rebhan pointed to the softball team’s 3.34 team GPA last year to applause and stated the goals for the season: 40 wins, winning the FIU-hosted Conference USA tournament, “and hopefully go far in the regionals.”
Rebhan closed with “One thing about girls softball, from coaching baseball and softball -- with girls, they have to feel good to play good. And right now, being out there watching these girls out there, they feel good. They feel good about themselves and the program.”
NUTS AND BOLTS STUFF THAT FEW CARE ABOUT IN PROPORTION TO ITS IMPORTANCE (JUST ASK FOOTBALL AND MEN’S BASKETBALL…)
Without mentioning FIU’s most recent appearances in the national media noise, Garcia swung into talking about Compliance, the SAAC and academic progress rating (APR). This is usually when “How did this happen?” gets asked often enough to be each meeting’s signature catch phrase.
Not this time. Compliance hadn’t bungled anybody’s eligibility. Nobody’s been put in academic time out. There’s no new APR problems.
“I feel very comfortable about what we have going on in the SAAC and the Compliance department with our APR and it’s been a total, total team effort,” Garcia said. “We’re starting to see the results. In a lot of these areas, you don’t see the results until two or three years down the line. What’s really encouraging is we’re seeing immediate results.”
He sang of Vice President for Academic Affairs Elizabeth Bejar – “She’s a workaholic. She gets things gdone. She’s very demanding, I’ll say that. But it makes everybody go to the next level.” – before handing the floor to Compliance Director of several months Hank Harrawood.
“I know from our last meeting, the certification process was important to make sure our student-athletes on the field are indeed able to represent us on the field,” said Harrawood, hired in the months following the Ray Taylor and Marita Davydova oops-ups that cost both basketball teams.
Now, the new web-based certification system will, he said, “allow for cross checking. It’ll allow everybody to go back and see what others have done. It’ll allow for greater accountability in the certification process and help majkre sure our athletes are indeed able to represent us when they do represent us on the field.”
Also, all the coaches who needed to be certified to recruit off campus passed the certification the first time. Harrawood said from what he’s heard that’s an FIU first.
Arrizurieta gave kudos that, so far, Compliance being under the Athletics umbrella works. Garcia extolled Harrawood’s work ethic with “weekends, he’ll call me in the middle of the night. Then, he introduced APR consultant John Shukie.
Shukie used to work for the NCAA. Now, he’s the president of Forward Progress Athletics Company, which works with 20 schools. Right before Shukie made that transition, he got a call from FIU as a school staring the APR abyss of men’s basketball and football.
“Let me paint the picture for you in the summer of 2013 when I did get that call,” Shukie said. “FIU athletics, especially men’s basketball and football, were facing some difficult APR issues. The men’s basketball team knew they’d be ineligible for the men’s basketball tournament coming up this past academic year. Football was looking at a very difficult sittaiton where they might fall in that same boat.”
“The first thing I did was diagnostically figure out, How did FIU get there? What put them in this situation?”
Shukie listed staff instability (the SAAC had more directors the last few years than Gone With the Wind) plus a lack of resources. Then, when bringing up the APR issues that penalized basketball and threatened to do so with football, he pointed at former men’s basketball coach Isiah Thomas and former football coach Mario Cristobal.
“What was lacking were some coaches who didn’t necessarily buy into the concept of APR,” Shukie said.
Having had a long APR discussion with Cristobal as he groaned about the difficulty in raising a low APR, I’d call that assumption into question. I'd also say the problems in Compliance and the SAAC, the same ones being celebrated as being fixed, contributed heavily to the basement APR. Such as the SAAC advisor who advised one athlete to take a course he'd already taken and passed, helping his academic ineligibility (she later advised a track athlete right into inelgibility).
“We are still, in some senses, paying for what happened in 2010-11 and 11-12 now because we keep those numbers until they roll off four years later,” Shukie said. “We had coaches, at least from what I can tell -- who have since left (or been fired – DJN), I did not deal with them -- weren’t necessarily recruiting with an academic purpose. They were probably recruiting with an athletic purpose, to win games, but there didn’t seem to be a real strategic plan for recruiting student-athletes who could be successful on the court or field and off the court or field.
“Over the course of the year, I’ve witnessed a 180,” he continued. “I thind it starts at the top. When I say at the top, there’s a group of people at the top. It starts with Pete Garcia stressing to his coaches, emphasizing to his coaches the importance of academics. I wasn’t a witness to what was going on before I got hired, I assume those conversations happened before I arrived as well.
“What I have seen is coaches buying into that. Especially in football and men’s basketball, where a lot of my work has been focused. We have coaches that buy into the concept of APR. They’re bringing in student-athletes who are focused athletically and academically.”
So, does Shukie think change started at the top with Garcia or at the coaching level? He seems to say both.
Anyway, Shukie lauded the involvement of men’s basketball coach Anthony Evans and football coach Ron Turner: “I’ve had more phone calls from Coach Turner than any coach I’ve worked with across the 20 schools I’m involved with.”
Shukie said any athletes coming to FIU just for a visit have their academics fully vetted before coming. If not in order, he claims, no visit. Remember the cancelled visit by all-purpose guy Javonte Seabury, for a while FIU’s highest rated 2014 football recruit? There you go.
“Part of our strategic plan is to have them create relationships with the faculty For men’s basketball, we require them to face to face interactions with the faculty, not just sit in the back,” Shukie said. “They have to actually go introduce themselves. We also require men’s basketball to participate in the on-campus mentoring program so they can have an administrative, faculty mentor. Not just helps them academically, but ties them to this school. So they feel tied to FIU and not just tied to FIU men’s basketball program.”
Arrizurieta half-joked, “if we were the first (client) and helped you get another 19 clients, we should get a reduction on our fee.”
Garcia countered, “Mr. Chair, just the penalty alone for football for any school that doesn’t make the APR (minimum) is $300,000. He’s worth every penny.”
The February meeting introduced a new bigger budget for the SAAC. This meeting officially introduced the new SAAC Director, Wes Maas.
Maas said the SAAC will add two learning specialists by the end of this semester as well as an assistant director position. The SAAC itself is getting a construction version of a workout-and-wardrobe makeover.
Maas wants to increase “the pride in our facility so our student athletes, who are 18 or 19 years old, feel as good about walking into the SAAC that they feel when they walk into the math lab on campus, which is amazing, state of the art and it’s new.”
They won’t be walking in for study hall. Maas eliminated it because he felt that a system of simply counting hours turned SAAC employees into timekeepers. It failed to provide the in-person attention some athletes need.
“We want to create independent learners. We don’t want to hold hands, we don’t want to facilitate eligibility,” Maas said. “We take the syllabi, break down the reporting status, so we know every week what our student athlete is supposed to be doing. We bring them in on Sunday or Monday. We have the student athlete create their objectives for the week, what they’re supposed to complete and when. We can assign them tutoring, we can assign them office hours with faculty, we can do anything in that time to ensure the student-athletes have the resources they need. Then we follow through the week and make sure the student-athletes complete the objectives they’re assigned.
“This is obviously for freshmen and athletes new to the university. But the idea is teach them how to do it, so that the next year they can do it and be independent in the process.”
After Maas finished, Arrizurieta said he was proud of the work the committee did in pushing for improvements in the SAAC and Compliance.
“Whatever else this board needs to do to support the initiative of athletics, the SAAC, Compliance, I’m incredibly happy to see that we are generally in the direction of progress, we’re tangibly seeing progress,” he said.
Vice Chairman Mitchell Adler assented.
“Thank both of you and the rest of the trustees for pushing the envelope and making us better,” Garcia said. “I’d like to thank President Rosenberg and the administration for giving us the resources we need to make this work. I echo the senitments that its been a team effort from both your stand point, the administration and everybody who’s doing the actual day-to-day work. I couldn’t be more proud of what everybody’s done and more excited for our future. Because without academic success, we’re not going to have any other kind of success.”
Arrizurieta stayed for the Finance Committee meeting that followed. He asked FIU Foundation president Howard Lipman if there was a policy of “a donor gone bad,” a clear reference to David Alfonso. The donation deal between FIU and Alfonso that put his name on the football field now called Ocean Bank Field ended after only three of its five years.
Lipman said as far as taking a donor to court “I don’t think that would be anything I would ever recommend.”
In 99 percent of cases, Lipman said, an unfulfilled donation occurs not out of any maliciousness but bad situation, i.e., market downturn, business dropoff, something happens in their lives (bad health and bad divorce can suck your money faster than the biggest black hole -- DJN).
“The last thing we want to go is create a policy toward the 1 percent,” Lipman said.
Arrizurieta said some protection must be given because “We’ve been through this before. It’s not intangible, it’s tangible and it’s happened.”