According to head football coach in charge Ron Turner, senior tight end Ya'Keem Griner is "day-to-day" with a foot injury. I saw Griner getting off the field on crutches and in the boot. I never like seeing the boot.
The boot tends to be bad. Foot injuries tend to be very bad. That's too bad as Griner's having a career year with 21 receptions for 225 yards and two touchdowns.
At least junior linebacker Treyvon Williams appeared to be off his crutches, but not in pads.
The guy throwing to Griner, sophomore quarterback Alex McGough, can claim to be having a pretty good season.
Granted FIU's passing game dines mostly at the Woolworth Five & Dime lunch counter (yards per completion 11th out of 13 Conference USA teams), but McGough's thrown 14 touchdowns and 1,659 yards, but with only three interceptions. And one of the interceptions was a desperation fourth down, game situation heave against Indiana. He's gotten lucky on some near-picks, but every quarterback does. You can tell a quarterback's maturing when he reduces his interceptions and near-interceptions via forced throws.
Here's a fun discussion. McGough has a sophomore No. 1 running back in Alex Gardner and a sophomore No. 1 wide receiver in Thomas Owens, both of whom are good players at the G5 level. They're better at what they do than most of their competition. But give McGough the advantages over opponents at those positions that Florida State's Everett Golson can call upon or the Hurricanes' Brad Kaaya enjoys and what do McGough's numbers look like? How much better would FIU be -- if at all -- with Golson or Kaaya?
I'd love to do a story on McGough's season. That would require talking to McGough in something other than a postgame situation. Each media request, even by the radio broadcast team, to talk to McGough during the week once the season started has been Dikembe Mutumbo'd by Turner. I guess that's about protection or keeping the young man's head from getting too big or something.
That makes about as much sense as finally joining the rest of Division I/FBS college sports and hiring a dedicated video coordinator, then leaving him at home on two football road trips because there's not enough space on the plane. FIU did that to video coordinator Brian Duval again last weekend.
Then again, maybe actual professional videos focused on sporting events aren't what moves needles around FIU.
FIU men's soccer (8-4, 3-2) upset No. 9 Old Dominion tonight, which might move them back into the Top 25. It's also a Conference USA men's soccer win. Considering all the ranked teams, previously ranked teams and almost ranked teams in the conference, that's almost the Willy Wonka gold ticket of Conference USA sports. That's harder to get than a straight answer on why the new softball locker rooms that weren't to be impacted by the money spent on Miss Universe aren't done (or, even started).
Pool problems up at the BBC forced Swim & Dive to summon FAU and the University of Miami down to Gulliver Prep to take their butt-kickings in Saturday's portion of Dual-A-Palooza. The final counts were 138-62 over FAU and 122-83 over the Hurricanes. Bet on sophomore Kyna Periera to be CUSA Swimmer of the Week and possibly to appear in the first College Football Playoff rankings after finishing in nothing but first in the eight events she swam over the two days.
Meanwhile, up here in Murfreesboro, FIU and Middle Tennessee State football did some strange things with each other. Not freaky amateur webcam strange. Buut "Do what?" strange.
I'm too tired and full of Arby's to organize my thoughts and I've got to get up to cover Man Campbell's coaching debut tomorrow. So, I think I'm going to do that Old Man-Don't Give a Ham thing where I just throw down my thoughts randomly as they come. I'll try to keep them in chronological order.
*FIU's second drive shows why you hustle out every play. When Richard Leonard picked off Middle quarterback Brent Stockstill's first throw, everybody watching thought "touchdown." Leonard had picked off a cross field 10-yard pass -- the first and last Middle would ask Stockstill to throw Saturday -- with a clear track to the end zone. Stockstill got on his horse and knocked out Leonard at the 1. FIU got nowhere with two line plunges, then ran a terribly thrown fade to Ya'Keem Griner, one of Alex McGough's few truly bad passes. The throw hit the defender in the back. Griner never had a chance to make a play. Anyway, FIU field goal instead of what seemed a sure touchdown. And you just knew this was going to be the kind of game where both sides would need every point they could muster.
*You won't score every time you reach the 2-yard-line with downs in your pocket. But you can't go two for four as FIU did Saturday.
I heard the late Jim Mandich (a good football player, better person) say one day in that distinctive voice, "A coach of mine once told me in ev-er-y game there will come a time when you have to gain 1 yard." FIU didn't get that yard. Or 2. I know Middle puts a pair of 6-1, 318-pound wide loads, fifth-year senior Patrick McNeil and redshirt junior Shaquille Huff, in the defensive tackle slots and dares you to move them. Maybe you can't. What you really can't do is fail twice and settle for field goals. That's eight points left on the table. What was the final score again?
*Wide receiver Shawn Abrams was on the trip. I couldn't help but think as FIU failed on that first drive then later on first and goal from the 2, uh, how about putting the 6-4 guy with the shelf grabber reach in and throwing him a fade? FIU tried it last week and McGough threw a terrible pass that almost got picked. But that's no reason not to try it this week.
*Speaking of guys whose usage seemed questionable, Ron Turner talked in the preseason about getting freshman Anthony Jones the ball. And, a couple of times a game, you see FIU put Jones in to run a jet sweep or bubble screen to try to get him the ball in space. Then, unless the game's already decided, he gets called back to the sidelines and stored the way Barney Fife stored the one bullet he was allowed to have. Old Person pop culture reference but appropriate because FIU uses Jones in a series of one shots. Saturday, he had three carries, two of them when FIU trailed 35-19 and the offensive line was getting less movement than public records requests get in Rick Scott's office. "Special player" doesn't mean you use him only in special situations. Jones needs to be used more. Throw him the bubble screen on third and long and have the tight end or bigger wide receiver block instead of throwing it to the wide receiver or tight end and hope they can break tackles.
*Or just not drop the ball. McGough threw the ball well Saturday. For 51 passes, there weren't many bad throws or bad decisions. Unfortunately, his receivers fought the ball and the ball won often enough to be a problem. McGough had a lovely, perfect deep ball dropped for the second consecutive week among the many (six? seven?) drops Saturday.
*Thomas Owens makes nice adjustments when McGough's in trouble.
*And what's up with the timeout before the two-point conversion? FIU trailed 35-19 in the fourth quarter, so you know you're going for two if you get into the end zone. You have (or should have) a set of two-point conversion plays. You've had three quarters to see what's working and what's not. And you waste one of three valuable time stoppers to discuss?
I'm of the John Madden school on timeouts -- timeouts are too valuable to waste just on a little uncertainty or avoiding a delay of game penalty.
*Turner said after the game that Middle had "the best secondary in the conference, by far" and "they've got as good a defense as we'll see in this conference." Middle did allow only 4.3 yards per play, an averaged helped by FIU's troubles getting the ball over once inside the 5-yard line. Otherwise, I'm calling Coachspeak -- the Panthers moved the ball pretty well most of the day and, despite leaving at least nine points on the field, scored 34 points with two turnovers' help. That's the week after Western put up 58 on Middle.
*The Blue Raiders always seem to find running backs. Injuries to their top two running backs meant Jeremiah Bryson started. Bryson was arrested and accused of instigating a fight between his baby mama and his current woman; providing transportation to the brawl for the current female; and participating in that brawl. Oh, and being a deadbeat dad. Down two running backs, Middle coach Rick Stockstill graciously decided to withhold any punitive measures on Bryson.
Bryson went out with a shoulder injury, leaving freshman Desmond Anderson out of Spartanburg Broome High School to carry the load. He went Ed Podolak on FIU, running for 144 and adding 102 yards on kickoff returns. Anderson ran hard, but many plays he didn't make serious contact with anybody until he was 5 to 7 yards downfield.
FIU got shoved aside in the front seven, particularly the defensive left side. And, for the first time since last year's loss to Marshall, FIU went sackless. Yes, most of Stockstill's completions were off quick throws that that get the ball out too fast for even an unblocked rusher. Still, he got protected like a teenage daughter when he really needed time for downfield throws.
*FIU's gotten their return game going the last two weeks. Middle came in allowing 20.96 yards per kickoff return. Saturday, the Panthers averaged 31.7 yards per runback and that includes two short returns by Clinton Taylor off squibs.
*Did Middle safety Quay Watt talk about some official's mama or something? He took three major penalties. The first, a late hit call on Jonnu Smith as Smith strode up the sideline, was even worse than the one at UMass called on Jephete Matilus. Showing the inconsistency, Smith had just left the field of play by maybe a half stride before Watt hit him. But a few drives later, an FIU player gots tackled halfway into the bench...no call. Nice consistency.
Watt also got rung up on a pass interference when Jonnu Smith turned and ran into him as a McGough deep pass sailed over their heads. Now, when it came to the pass interference/holding in the end zone, Watt clearly did all that.
Today's last two FIU meets in Dual-A-Palooza, FIU vs. FAU at 10 a.m. and FIU vs. Hurricanes at 3 p.m., have been moved from the Biscayne Bay campus to Gulliver Prep, 6575 Kendall Drive, in the lovely suburb of Pinecrest.
Pool malfunction, says an FIU source. Will it be fixed by the next home meet, Nov. 6 and 7 vs. Illinois? "Hope so."
Anyway, when I talked to FIU swim & dive coach Randy Horner last week, he downplayed the significance of Friday's meet against Conference USA's second best swim team, Rice. Some of the events aren't regulation NCAA events, it's early in the season, etc.
Bet Horner still puts that 133-90 win against Rice, however, with the other feelgood wins on the shelf. On the FIU whole, that almost balances out women's soccer losing 1-0 in double overtime to Western Kentucky and volleyball losing in 3-2 (21-25, 25-21, 11-25, 25-17, 15-8) to Southern Mississippi.
Middle’s first two Conference USA seasons, the Blue Raiders averaged 240.1 rushing yards per conference game. Bunches of running backs coming into the game to steadily move the ball in 4 to 8-yard cracks. Now, with head coach Rick Stockstill's son, Brent, at quarterback, they throw it for over 300 yards per game, 307.2 to be exact over their first six games. The run game's getting only 3.5 yards per crack, 3.9 under my Real Rushing stat, which discounts quarterback sacks.
That's why Middle's thrown 10 more passes than they've run, 21 more subtracting sacks and kneeldowns. That's also why FIU's most worried about wide receivers Ed'Marques Batties, a fifth-year senior, and redshirt freshman Richie James, each of whom has 49 receptions. Expect a bubble screen bath from Middle and the usual Lawrence Welk Show of bubbles and 5-yard Stop-and-Pops from FIU, too. Safe passes, get elusive or strong players in space and see what happens.
If FIU uses 6-5 senior wide receiver Juwan Caesar, it would make sense to use his big body not only as a chain mover, but a people mover. Run the edges to his side, run bubble screens with him making the 3-or-30 block (the block that determines whether the play goes 3 yards or 30 yards). When FIU’s run bubbles using sophomore wide receiver Dennis Turner or sophomore Thomas Owens as the blocker, you can see the play’s potential right before the block gets shed and the receiver upended.
Middle’s defensive backs didn’t look good against Western. Yeah, I know, Western could make the Seahawks secondary look confused and pregnant. But tackling’s tackling. Or, rather, not tackling is not tackling, in the case of Middle. That's a problem when if you have to deal with El Dorados with acceleration like tight end Jonnu Smith, Ya'Keem Griner, Caesar and Thomas Owens.
As far as the defense Middle runs, FIU coach Ron Turner said, "Very similar to ours -- 4-3, quarters coverage, like a lot of people. They're fairly basic on first and second down, as most people are. But they've got a very good third down package that schematically presents a problem."
Middle's picked off 10 passes this season already. Could be some jumpy defensive backs, especially if they start to think they can time FIU's Stop-and-Pops. With some patience and time, quarterback Alex McGough could find himself with some receivers running relaxed through the secondary like a cigarette ad couple strolling by a country pond.
For what it's worth, this game’s at 11 a.m. Murfreesboro time. Middle looked sleepy for its 11 a.m. start against Western Kentucky last week. FIU had UTEP down for an afternoon nap by noon. Temperatures should be a little nippy for FIU, low 60s, but good football weather.
Both teams, on both sides of the ball, do their job in the red zone partially because both defend the run better than the pass. Both teams also have shown vulnerability to the big play. And I think we'll get several of those. As noted in today's advance story, things tend to get weird when FIU and Middle get together.
Middle's at home. Alabama, Vandy, Illinois and Western in-conference might make the Blue Boy Group a little more competition tempered than FIU.
Middle Tennessee State 30, FIU 24.
But that's one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.
Swimming & Diving -- Saturday vs. University of Miami, 4 p.m.
Men's Soccer -- Saturday vs. Old Dominion, 7 p.m.
Actually, let me open with women's soccer, which can clinch a spot in the Conference USA tournament this weekend. Wins at Western Kentucky and Marshall -- or a win at Western, a tie at Marshall, FAU ties or beats Western Sunday, Louisiana Tech doesn't win both weekend games (got that?) -- put the Panthers into the tournament they'll host Nov. 4-8.
Think that's not a big deal? Ask the nearest FIU softball player, forced to sit in the timeout of offseason while the 2015 Conference USA tournament teams played in her sandbox. Or the remaining women's soccer players from last year's very talented, very underachieving team that somehow didn't make the conference tournament. Or volleyball. Or men's soccer. Or women's basketball.
(Boy, it really was Big Enchilada In or Big Enchilada Out for FIU last year as far as last year's Conference USA tournaments/meets, huh?)
Conference USA's Sexy Seven. Not much movement at the top, but this weekend could make things interesting.
1. Western Kentucky (5-1, 3-0 in conference play): Is North Texas adding a third digit to the visitor's side of the scoreboard for Thursday's game? This weekend: If I have to tell you, you're not paying attention and I'm not coddling that.
2. Marshall (5-1, 2-0): Responded to the challenge by a good Southern Mississippi team by giving them what for, 31-10. This weekend: at FAU.
3. Louisiana Tech (4-2, 2-1): That three-point win over UTSA looked much harder than it should have been. This weekend: at Mississippi State.
4. Middle Tennessee State (2-4, 1-1): The Blue Raiders defense Floundered against Western. (Capitalization intentional. It reminded me of Flounder throwing up on Dean Wormer.). By the way, check out this story on Middle's No. 2 rusher Jeremiah Bryson. This weekend: vs. FIU.
5. FIU (3-3, 1-1): The only team that's kept La Tech under 30 leads the conference in red zone offense, red zone defense and rarely turns the ball over. This weekend: at Middle.
6. Rice (3-3, 2-1): See Louisiana Tech, sub "one-point" for "three-point" and "FAU" for "UTSA." This weekend: Bye.
7. Southern Miss (3-3, 1-1): Todd Monken said it's time for this team to make a move. This weekend: hosting UTSA.
Let's talk bowls and bowl possibilities for FIU.
Nobody's saying FIU can't go to Marshall and win. And, maybe FIU's got the big play defense to fence with the swashbucklers at Western just as Western's offense made it the Metallo to Marshall's Superman last year.
The most likely results, however, land FIU at six or seven wins, the swing game being Middle on Saturday. Breaking down the schedule, it looks like it'll be a perfect fit -- seven bowl-eligible brides for seven bowl brothers. So, which bowl's bed gets FIU? Going chronologically...
Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Dec. 19: This is where UTEP went last year. Rice is the closest. FIU going here makes no sense.
R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Dec. 19: Savvy sportswriters covering games at Southern Miss fly into New Orleans the night before and drive to Hattiesburg on game day. This is Southern Miss all the way.
Miami Beach Bowl, Dec. 21: I wish. But, no.
Last year's Miami Beach Bowl broadcast came back from commercial break to another establishing shot showing a December-chilled nation our sunny Miami home. A bowl suit and I pointed at the screen and laughed, "That's why this game exists!"
To an even greater degree than most bowls, the Miami Beach Bowl's about promoting tourism in our tourism-and-real estate-based ponzi scheme economy. Which means, if at all possible, the bowl wants two teams from out of town to bring their fans to Miami in December. They want two teams from out of town to bring their fan eyeballs to the broadcast, so those eyeballs' owners can see those establishing shots (mini-commercials) and say, "I'm tired of change of seasons."
Also, after last year's shootout-and-brawl between Memphis and BYU, they'll want a team that can help with at least the shootout part. Hello, Western Kentucky.
Popeyes Bahamas Bowl, Dec. 24: Got your passports? Might want to get them ready just in case. This tourism-based bowl would welcome a school a short plane hop away. I'm not sure FIU would welcome the expense compared to the other leading option...
St. Petersburg Bowl, Dec. 26: The game called the Beef O'Brady's Bowl when FIU met Marshall in 2011 could invite FIU back. Of the seven previous incarnations of this bowl, five have featured a Florida school. Cheap for FIU, an easy gameday drive for fans the day after Christmas.
Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl, Dec. 26: You fly into Shreveport when you go to La Tech and get on Interstate 20 East. The sign for I-20 West says "Dallas." Which is why La Tech went there last year and probably will again this year.
Arizona Bowl, Dec. 29: The first year of anything means all kinds of problems. There were problems in the Bahamas Bowl last year. The Miami Beach Bowl brawl doesn't happen if Memphis' doesn't have to run through the BYU bench to get to its fan section. Bet that'll be changed this year. Rice has more juice in the conference than Middle, so the Blue Raiders could wind up the guinea pig team.
Swimming & Diving -- Saturday vs. University of Miami, 4 p.m.
Men's Soccer -- Saturday vs. Old Dominion, 7 p.m.
Against North Florida last week, senior Jessica Chadwick won the 100 backstroke in 1:05.91, the 200 breaststorke in 2:22.63 and 200 individual medley in 2:07.85. That earned Chadwick her first Conference USA Swimmer of the Week award.
Not much to report other than the medical.
Of the three players who went down in the second half Saturday, freshman defensive end Fermin Silva looks the worst. He was on crutches Tuesday. FIU coach Ron Turner called him "questionable" for this week. Two redshirt freshmen, offensive lineman Chris Miller and defensive lineman Anthony Johnson, were in the Home Depot-colored injury jerseys, but in pads as were sophomore wide receiver Dennis Turner and senior tight end Ya'Keem Griner.
I wouldn't look for junior middle linebacker Treyvon Williams back any time soon. He still had his crutches. Redshirt junior safety Jordan Davis wasn't in pads.
One of those sporting coincidences that FIU ran an old-fashioned option like you used to see out of an I-formation Saturday afternoon and Florida State did the same several hours later for the first time this season. FIU's wound up a 2-yard gain by quarterback Alex McGough. FSU's wound up a 72-yard touchdown by running back Dalvin Cook when Hurricanes defender Dion Bush blew his assignment to stay with the pitch man.
I thought it was the first time I saw FIU run that kind of option this season.
"We've been running some of it off other action. We've had it in game plans before. totally their defense dictated that. And we didn't execute it very well -- Alex should've pitched it," Turner laughed. "It looked like we just put it in that week. We didn't."
Seeing those option runs caused a Fireman's Fund Flashback...
Swimming & Diving -- Saturday vs. University of Miami, 4 p.m.
Men's Soccer -- Saturday vs. Old Dominion, 7 p.m.
Buried in this report out of Massachusetts is the report of another UMass-FIU game, in 2016. It'll replace the previously scheduled UMass-UConn game.
In the postgame notebook off FIU's Oct. 3 loss to the Minutemen, the first of a two-game deal that'll see UMass come south in 2018, I wrote that UMass and FIU were signing up for two more games. FIU's got room on their 2017 and 2019 schedules. UMass comes to The Cage in 2018.
SWIMMING & DIVING
I'm never one to kvetch about a trip to Nashville, one of the funnest cities in the nation. But this weekend's trip to Murfreesboro (translation: stay in Nashville, drive the 45 for the game) means missing the unusual series of dual meets between defending Conference USA champion FIU, Conference USA runner-up Rice, FAU and the Hurricanes.
Races won't always conform to NCAA norms as far as length. It's early in the season, too, so projecting February based on results here would be premature speculation.
Also, FIU's somewhere between "rebuilding" and "reloading." They lost several seniors including Klara Andersson and FIU's greatest swimmer, Johanna Gustafsdottir (although you'll still see Johanna around FIU sports events as a sports marketing intern). Silvia Scalia, Gustafsdottir's heir apparent as FIU's top all-around swimmer, decided not to come back to FIU for reasons unknown. Karin Tomeckova, second to Scalia in the 100 backstroke at the Conference USA meet, is skipping this year at FIU to go for a spot on Slovakia's Olympic team.
That said, the program's in a much stronger position, both in the pool and in recruiting, than it was when last year's seniors were brought into the program. That showed in last year's depth.
FIU's ranked 16th among the mid-majors by CollegeSwimming.com, and the Hurricanes ranked 21st in all of Division I. Rice would like a piece of FIU after getting dusted in last year's Conference USA meet. The other two schools are natural rivals and FIU beat UM by a blink to complete an undefeated dual meet season last year.
Told you UTEP would be chicken soup for FIU's soul.
Actually, UTEP was soup, salad, turkey marsala and Peruvian donuts for dessert all preceded by a calming caipirinha or two.
They were the perfect matchup for the Panthers -- a running team with a broken offense and a broken defense that plays a lot of press man-to-man. The Miners based their offense around running back Aaron Jones, which would've played into FIU's strength anyway. But with Jones lost for the season to injury, and UTEP so injured the handicap symbol should be their logo, the Miners just began putting whatever running back was healthy behind redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Metz. One UTEP observer thought the team packed it in after Jones injury. They beat atrocious New Mexico State in OT and FCS team Incarnate Word with a second half comeback.
And FIU did what it was supposed to do. It clubbed the baby seal. FIU scored so fast, a brotha couldn't make a press box-to-restroom run at the first quarter break without missing a TD. I haven't seen Miners treated like this since Harlan County, USA.
Five touchdowns in five possessions A senior cornerback, Jeremiah McKinnon, did some redshirt freshman hazing on Metz.
"I got the pass read from the offensive tackle," McKinnon said. "That's all I keyed. Then, I looked at the quarterback. He took me where I needed to go."
Perhaps the one play symbolizing the whole game to me was junior tight end Jonnu Smith's touchdown. Smith came free on the left side, gathered in a short pass, nearly ran up the back of teammate Akil Dan-Fodio, then careened through defensive backs like they were toy clown punching bags. The play ended with the 230-pound Smith crossing the goal line while shrugging UTEP's 5-10, 175 pound cornerback Da'Carlos Renfro to the ground. Smith lingered over Renfro and looked down at him as if to confirm the man-boy status described by the play.
Too big, too strong, too crisp on this day.
(One UTEP observer wondered if Smith should've been flagged for taunting. I don't like taunting rules or flags -- don't like the guy taunting you, do your job better than he does his -- but that could've drawn a flag by today's standards. This Conference USA crew, however, seemed to use old school standards on post play flags, especially as far as late hits. Come to think of it, the last three weeks have seen FIU guys take some extra emphasis shots common in the 1970s NFL, but usually flagged for 15 today. The CUSA crews haven't called a single late hit on an FIU opponent. Maybe they should before somebody gets hurt. And the Smith post touchdown moment was the only time I saw FIU close to a behavior flag all day. The last two weeks, I could see some of those flags coming from the press box.)
Alex Gardner had 45 yards rushing on the first touchdown drive. You run that way, it sets up a long shot to Anthony Jones next drive that Jones couldn't hold. So, the next play, Alex McGough tried the other side with Thomas Owens. Owens had Miners cornerback Kalon Beverly beat, established position on Beverly as the ball hung for a bit, made the catch, shed Beverly and stepped into the end zone.
So logically did the rout unfold that I started looking for a running clock in the second quarter. Once FIU guys started being helped off at the same rate as UTEP guys, I started wondering why FIU still had the first stringers on the field. This was a day for roster management. Get some backups significant playing time as you want, keeping them hungry without unnecessarily burning some redshirts.
Also, it's nice to see backups have a moment like the 79-yard Trey Anderson-to-Shug Oyegunle touchdown pass. Those guys do the practice work, class, community service stuff during the week just like first stringers and first-off-the-bench guys. They deserve at least a soupcon of game glory.
Special teams might have had the best day of all. That matchup graphed out as going toward UTEP, but the punt return units opened huge gaps for Richard Leonard (37 yards on his one return) and Clinton Taylor (18 on his). Punt return coverage held Jaquan White, averaging 20.0 yards per return, to 10.0. Kickoff return ace Autrey Golden, six career touchdowns, got held to 18.4 yards per return. Austin Taylor got two touchbacks in his seven kickoffs. Punter Stone Wilson moonlighted on kickoffs and got a touchback in his three.
Overall, FIU did what it should've done and what it needed to do. They're feeling good going into Middle Tennessee State next week while Middle's probably feeling a bit shaken after taking a strafing from Western Kentucky.
Women's soccer -- Sunday vs. Louisiana Tech, 1 p.m.
Swimming & Diving -- Friday vs. Rice, 4 p.m.
Swimming & Diving -- Saturday vs. FAU, 10 a.m.
Swimming & Diving -- Saturday vs. University of Miami, 4 p.m.
Before we get started on football, a raised glass to the simultaneous wins at Camp Mitch Friday night. Women's soccer took down Southern Mississippi, 1-0, to move to 7-7, but more importantly, 3-2 in Conference USA. Volleyball swept Charlotte 3-0 and now sit at 11-7, 5-2.
Men's soccer goes to UAB today as it continues the death march through Conference USA (or ACC 2).
FIU football is sick. Disappointing losses at La Tech and UMass, marked by undue crankiness, left their temperature under .500. Look at the medical report that never seems to get shorter. Look at the standings that say a loss today puts them two games behind Marshall and the Middle Tennessee State-Western Kentucky winner in CUSA East with all three of those teams left on the schedule, two on the road. And it means FIU will have to win one of those three games just to get bowl eligible.
This is when some senior citizen female in your family gets in (pick one) her Lincoln Crown Vic/her beige Toyota Camry/the 27 bus to roll up to your house, shuffle quickly in and pour a bucket of chicken soup (or gumbo) down your throat. For ailing FIU, the schedule makers play the role of Big Mama.
They brought the Panthers UTEP, chicken soup for the FIU football team's soul.
What more could FIU want? FIU's got injuries. The Miners have more -- 10 guys out for the season. A team that wants to be ground bound lost starting tailback Aaron Jones. His backup, Darrin Laufasa, had but a single carry in the 25-6 loss to UTSA. Laufasa might be able to play. Starting linebacker Alvin Jones won't. Nor will his backup, Stephen Forester. Jones' importance is such that the UTEP folks tried to create a hastag for him (#JuggernautJones). Cornerback Kelvin Fisher's out, too. If I missed your name, I'm sorry. Write-in and I'll include you when I talk about UTEP next year.
Oh, and trying to run the offense amidst this carnage in his sixth college game and third start is redshirt freshman Ryan Metz. A redshirt freshman in his third start shouldn't look like Jameis Winston (without the crab legs) against FIU's defense.
(Quick digression: FIU announced its game captains this week. For the first time, they didn't include senior defensive end Michael Wakefield: graduate transfer senior linebacker Jephete Matilus, fifth-year senior Richard Leonard, sophomore quarterback Alex McGough, redshirt junior center Michael Montero.)
FIU's pass coverage often looks discombobulated from the all the injuries and switching that needs to be done. UTEP acts like throwing the football's a sin. FIU stuffs the run. UTEP likes to run inside.
UTEP's 19th nationally in time of possession, yet 119th in team passing efficiency defense and 123rd in pass defense. Translation: the Miners give up the yardage on big plays.
So, FIU, pull those flys, streaks and deep posts out from under last year's tube socks and draws, blow off the dust and see what looks like it'll still play. Wide receivers Shawn Abrams and Juwan Caesar might play. Considering UTEP gives up 5.2 yards per rush, FIU should be able to establish a running game to set up downfield plays off play action, thus preventing the EZ Pass lane access UMass' pass rush got last week.
And FIU's favored by two touchdowns.
So you see how this sets up, right?
No, no, there looks like plenty of soup for everyone. Enough for soup to be a meal. The buffet should be open.
I say FIU eats 31-13.
But that's one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.
Saddleback Junior College long-snapper Jared Nash has committed to FIU as a preferred walk-on.
The Conference USA women's basketball coaches preseason poll, released Thursday, made the men's 10th place projection look like sycophant flattery as far as FIU.
Great expectations? Low expectations? Try no expectations -- 13th out of 14, ahead of only North Texas.
That results from being in a total rebuilding situation after the first wholesale coaching staff change in over three decades and the best returning player (forward Kiandre'a Pound) off a 3-26, 0-18 in conference play team won't be returning until she's finished with the reproductive process next year.
Middle Tennessee State, 29-5 in conference play since joining CUSA, is the preseason favorite.
Women's soccer -- Friday vs. Southern Miss, 7 p.m.
Volleyball -- Friday vs. Charlotte, 7 p.m.
Football -- Saturday vs. UTEP, noon
Women's soccer -- Sunday vs. Louisiana Tech, 1 p.m. (Soccer scarves for the first 50 Res Life students).
One big advantage of Conference USA over the Fun Belt -- CUSA's a tremendous bowl slut, hooking up with lower rung bowls, helping create new bowls and generally making sure there's a plethora of bowl beds for its teams to lay their heads come December. I think they're related to every bowl under Rose and above American Standard.
Seven primary bowl tie-ins this year (Heart of Dallaskeep most member team's fans tractable even after a conference title drops from the List of Possibilities. So, I'm expanding the weekly Top Six to the Select Seven.
1. Western Kentucky (4-1, 2-0 in Conference USA) -- Wilt Chamberlain, CUSA team version. Imagine how they'd be scoring if they hadn't lost 1,500-yard rusher Leon Allen. Home this week against Middle Tennessee State. Take the Over.
2. Louisiana Tech (3-2, 1-1) -- Running back Kenneth Dixon got tossed from last week's win against Louisiana-Lafayette, but he'll play at Texas-San Antonio.
3. Marshall (4-1, 1-0) -- Only two receivers over 11 yards per reception. That' means they need to get their chunk yardage from the big chunk of a running back, Devon Johnson. They do.
4. Middle Tennessee State (2-3, 1-0) -- After close losses to Illinois (who looks better than usual this year) and Vanderbilt, seeing visit to Western this weekend reminds me of the old Bernie Mac line "I ain't scared of you!" If Middle loses, next week's home game against FIU becomes an elimination game as far as the conference title.
5. Southern Miss (3-2, 1-0) -- A strange team. Got taken to the brink by Texas State, then they took Nebraska to the brink (although this is lesser Nebraska to the point it's almost NCIS: Lincoln.). Friday night at Marshall should test junior quarterback Nate Mullens.
6. Rice (2-3, 1-1) -- Love each conference's smarty pants private school rising up to tweak the schools who never have to worry about players making it into school.
7. FIU (2-3, 0-1) -- After FIU's 7 personal fouls or unsportsmanike conduct penalties over the last two games, UTEP should be practicing "Yo, Mama" snaps for dropping on Panthers at the key moment to draw a retaliation penalty ("Man, yo' mama's so ugly, I told her to wait for your sister outside.").
There's not much that'll help the crowd for a noon game against UTEP after two losses. So, FIU's making a measured raffle-focused effort at the student attendance after getting enough tickets distributed for the home opener.
Students entering the game at Gate 5 or 6 before halftime will get a raffle ticket with the chance of winning $1,000 tuition. The winning numbers will be shown on the video throughout the game and you have to be in the house when your number comes up to win. Also, there's a jersey giveaway at the end of the third quarter on the Panther Beach Party Deck, right up there near the drive-in projection booth that houses each school's radio team.
(Quick aside: Old Dominion put some new suites on the end of a 75-year-old stadium. It works. UMass put a new football facility and press box on a 50-year-old stadium. Nice try.)
Also, you can start buying tickets to win this ball, autographed by the whole team and coaching staff.
The winning number will be announced during the second half of the Homecoming Game, Oct. 24, vs. Old Dominion.
Conference USA coaches don't see FIU's men's basketball team having an offensive replacement for leading scorer Dennis Mavin or having the defense to translate to offense.
That's the message sent by FIU finishing 10th out of 14 CUSA teams in the league's preseason poll of coaches. Alabama-Birmingham is the preseason favorite.
The coaches put 6-10 center Adrian Diaz on the preseason All-CUSA Team. Though Diaz stood out as FIU's most dependable non-Mavin scorer, he made his conference rep on defense -- a conference-leading 99 blocked shots, sixth in the NCAA.
I've got several things to write in story or column form, so here's a few things from Tuesday's practice:
*Upon further review, FIU football coach Ron Turner had a problem with only one of the penalties called on the Panthers by the Conference USA crew Saturday at UMass. Turner didn't have to say it was the late hit call on middle linebacker Jephete Matilus.
*Wide receiver Dennis Turner didn't practice with a mild concussion, but is expected to play Saturday against UTEP.
*Jonnu Smith admitted he was "70 to 75 percent" Saturday but was out of the orange jerseys Tuesday. Of the injured safeties, Niko Gonzalez is the closest to coming back.
What happens when you put away your bombs just because the defense says it won't let you drop them?
Sophomore quarterback Alex McGough completes 24.4 passes per game, 13th nationally. His completion percentage, 64.6, is 36th. FIU's team yards per completion? A mere 9.3, 127th out of 127. Scoring offense, 21.4 (113th) and total offense, 356.6 yards per game (99th).
Not getting it done.
La Tech's Skip Holtz, like his old man and most other college coaches since Bear Bryant, knows how to either poormouth his own team or make the next opponent sound like 2004 Southern Cal. But in possibly buttering up Texas-San Antonio, he threw some kind words toward FIU's Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine:
"I think they (UTSA) are the best defensive football team we've played to this point. They definitely have the best front four. I thought Kansas State had the best interior players. I thought FIU had the best defensive ends."
After a weekend sweep of Marshall and UTEP, 10-6 FIU sits at 4-2 in conference play, sixth in the standings. You say "big deal" but after missing the CUSA tournament last year, yeah, it's kind of a big thumbs up so far.
For what it's worth, FIU's RPI ranks 168th in the nation.
We need Pigmeat Markham's The Judge up here to talk about the weenie roast of a mess this season's turning into for FIU. ("I'm sentencing from The Book of Years...and I'm starting on the last page."). Who wants it first? Everybody needs to step up and get some.
First, some reality before we get into the ripping. FIU would've been hard-pressed to stop UMass at full strength. An offense that put up 30 points per game when it had its quarterback last year returned more starters just on that side of the ball than Central Florida did on both.
FIU was down players at each defensive level. Starting defensive tackle Darrian Dyson got left home in a disciplinary measure. Starting middle linebacker Treyvon Williams has a knee injury. Safeties Wilkenson Myrtil and Niko Gonzalez remain out and, let's remember, they inherited their starting spots from Shemarke Spence's injury and Jordan Davis' academic problems. Then, redshirt junior Deonte Wilson got left home in a disciplinary move. FIU decided to play the better player, cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon, out of position at safety and bump up backup corner Mark Bruno. Not sure moving Bruno would've worked any better.
So you've got a complex offense with a two-year starting senior quarterback directing a well-versed side against a simplified defense with a senior-aged, freshman-game experienced middle linebacker directing a banged up side.
Maybe not Chess vs. Checkers. Chess vs. Dominoes? I'm not surprised UMass put up 495 yards. I am surprised those turned into only 24 points.
As far as talent, South Florida owns neither a monopoly on it nor does every kid want to stay within a bus ride of the maternal teat. Many just want to go somewhere they can play. Which is how UMass gets players like quarterback Blake Frohnapfel (transfer from Marshall), wide receiver Taj Sharpe (Piscataway, NJ), wide receiver Marken Michel (Plantation American Heritage High) and running back Jamal Wilson (Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas) in addition to some home state talent.
Bill Belichick would have trouble scheming his way out of the defense's situation. FIU's defensive approach looked vanilla, but if you're dealing with limited experience in production, you don't try for Cookies 'n' Cream. After a predictable half of "Which way did he go? Which way did he go?" and 334 yards of offense, FIU got UMass figured out a little better in the last 30 minutes. Of course, if UMass coach Mark Whipple hadn't kept choking on his own smarts in the first half, the Panthers might've been down 30 and played the second half with freshmen.
Offensive coaches who run sophisticated attacks love to show everybody how smart they are. They don't just want to score. They want to score and have you think, "Totally outsmarted and outcoached the other guy. They weren't ready for that. That so runs against the norm, what you think they'd do." That eventually slips into "Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius" mode and they overthink themselves. Such as when UMass got first and goal from the 3 and ran Wilson into the line for 1...then Wilson for a loss of 1...then got a chintzy pass interference call on Richard Leonard, first and goal on the 2, so then went with...Wilson for 1...Wilson for 0...then Marquis Young for a loss of 1 on a pitch play.
The whole time, you could hear that part of Whipple's brain going, "Hah! After all the end arounds and fakes, they'll never suspect a simple buck into the line! After I did it once, they'll never suspect it again! And again! And again! OK, let's run a pitch play against the faster defense on third and 1!"
Sort of like on FIU's lone touch for freshman Anthony Jones, I wondered who was thinking, "We'll cross them up on third and 5 by running a motion sweep with the fast guy to the short side of the field! It's so against what anyone thinking normally would do!"
That's about as imaginative as the offense got.
I have no doubt Ron Turner's postgame explosion, especially after last week's rant about discipline, was heartfelt. I also know that, like Dennis Green's more calculated "they are who we thought they were" postgame rant, it pushed some focus away from offensive strategic coaching failures. (Also, though any parent can tell you there's only so much you can truly control 50 guys old enough to vote, the buck on team discipline eventually stops at the coach's desk. One week is a bad game. Two weeks is a bad tendency. Three weeks is a bad problem.)
Back to the offense, which couldn't have been more bereft of creativity if stolen from a website selling C+ essays. Useful creativity, that is. Passing passed for creativity in the first half. The simple act, not anything about FIU's approach. FIU opened with a bubble screen to a clearly hobbled Jonnu Smith. I thought I heard hearty Falstaffian laughter among the New England trees as Smith was brought down for a loss of 2. Four of FIU's first five plays were predictable throws. The lone run was a 6-yard inside job by Alex Gardner. When FIU committed to a balanced attack in the second half, they ran the ball well enough and had their one good drive of the day.
Also, on those first two drives, McGough got lucky again. Either a miscommunication, misread by he or the receiver or something led to a throw that smacked linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox in the torso with nothing but teammates, green and glory in front him. Dropped it.
FIU pushed the ball downfield once all day, a sprint out to the left that hit fifth-year Clinton Taylor on his "5" before plopping to the ground. That was the sixth offensive play. Other than that metaphor for the South Florida wide receivers left from the previous regime, FIU let themselves be compacted for the second consecutive week.
Turner said La Tech set up last week to take away the bomb every time FIU had one called and complimented McGough for not throwing into the defense. I agree -- to a point. Using the defensive coverage as an excuse for the complete abandonment of the long ball is too Beta male for football. Sometimes, you've got to be gangster about it. Say "We don't care what you're giving us, we're taking what we want on this play." Maybe you get a pass interference call. Maybe you get a great play. Maybe you just keep it in the defenses mind that they can't dictate to you.
FIU inserted 6-4 Shawn Abrams in the third quarter. Abrams' initial target in college football was a quick slant on third down to keep the drive alive. They couldn't put him in earlier and ask him to run deep, jump high and see what happens?
Of course, maybe "protection issues" weighed on FIU play-calling minds. To the Minutemen, the Mass Turnpike ran through FIU's line with the right side being the fast lane. McGough got sacked three times. While there were no official "hurries," that's more on the stat crew. McGough got pressured. He wound up with 11 runs, a number that includes the three sacks and his scrambles.
I'm wondering if Anthon Samuel's OK. Gardner's the better all-around back, but there's never a change of pace or philosophy. Not to mention, he never gets a rest. (Yeah, I know, FIU doesn't stay on the field long enough for him to need a rest. Stop..).
For all the grumbling about the officiating, it was a Conference USA crew that delivered an inscrutable afternoon of calls and non-calls. Harrumphing about poor officiating after Saturday epitomizes noting the speck in someone else's eye while ignoring the log in yours.
The last two weeks demonstrated whole team failure. FIU's favored by 14 next Saturday against UTEP. They still have Old Dominion and Charlotte at home. There's still so much out there for the Panthers. Do they have the coaching, maturity and leadership to go get it?
FIU defensive coordinator Matt House's game face Saturday better be Brainiac 5 minus the green. Because the guy doing the thinking for the offense on the UMass side, Mark Whipple? He'll be looking to be a chunky Lex Luthor against the Panthers defense.
Or, I should say Princess Projectra with a whistle. Whipple's offense can give opponents a lot to look at, but little to see that they can fully trust. An illusion here, a truth there. "Believe half of what you see, son and none of what you hear..."
Coaches love to talk about "eye discipline" on defense. Young players usually have trouble with anything associated with discipline. FIU's got young (in game experience) safeties if Jordan Davis misses another week. Graduate senior transfer Jephete Matilus will replace junior Treyvon Williams at middle linebacker, but Matilus is young in college football terms, too. He's played less college-affiliated football, 17 games, than Williams and most of that was entirely on special teams. There's no question Matilus knows what he's supposed to do if asked. At game speed, will he know fast enough to do what he's supposed to do?
And as House simplifies the defense to accommodate his newbies, how much simpler does that make it for UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel, wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, running back Marquis Young and their offensive line?
These aren't light questions. FIU's from the better conference and a better recruiting area, although UMass does have enough Florida kids to run a decent Ponzi scheme. But Conference USA's not that much better than the Mid-America Conference and the Panthers aren't that much more talented that they can pooh-pooh any such concerns.
On the other side of the ball, I see FIU being able to attack between the tackles, thus setting up play action passes. Whether off play action or straight drop, FIU's got to vary their passes better in the third and fourth quarters. Defensive backs have been get-a-room close on FIU's wide receivers when they're not trying to jump the route later in the game.
Funny enough, when I ran McGough's numbers from FIU's three games against FBS opponents through the ratings calculator and took out the garbage time touchdown drive from last week that just let FIU beat the spread. I came out with 130.7 for the first half and 121.5 for the second.
Saturday morning in New England looks like every afternoon in the original England. Whether or not today's in the wet, FIU should stick the ball into a running back's gut -- I've got no problem with how Alex Gardner's playing, but I'm not sure why they're not giving Samuel some more time -- as long as they can. The Minutemen come in MinuteBoy size in the defensive front seven. UMass brings little mass.
Holding Temple to 67 yards in 37 carries looks great on UMass' resume. Temple running backs ran for 76 yards on 27 carries, usually given the ball as an afterthought. Those Owls traveled by air that day -- 48 passes and did so often as a primary option from looking at the play-by-play. I haven't seen the game film, so I don't know if UMass schemed to take away the Temple running game, which averages 159.3 yards per game. If so, good job by them. La Tech schemed to take away FIU's deep game and make the Panthers work for points. It worked because La Tech got the better of it up front and on the edges in the one-on-one blocking battles.
Usually you anticipate turnovers with rain and I'm sure some New England media as well as the TV folks will make a point of the Florida team playing in 50-degree weather. But last year's rainy night win over FAU produced turnovers by FAU. The Panthers lost only one. The Old Dominion loss occurred in a late afternoon-early evening November chill and the Panthers lost a fumble and an interception, neither of which were related to the weather. And they scored 35 points. Unless this game finds itself in one of Hurricane Joaquin's outer bands, don't expect a great weather effect.
Opponents average 10.2 yards per punt return on UMass. FIU's problem could be getting UMass to punt.
I see UMass scoring. I don't see them sucking up clock, however, or sitting on the ball well. So FIU's going to have every chance to win a game with a lot of points. I have no idea what's going on with the lines and the totals. That six-point swing in the first 24 hours, from FIU by 3 to UMass by 3, caught attention up here, too. A 56-point Over/Under looks low.
Just like FIU's last two games against FBS opponents, I'd stay away from this if I was in a sportsbook or just make a fun bet with drink money. I'll stay with my preseason pick: FIU 38, UMass 31.
That's just one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.
Some of you who follow FIU sports other than football have noticed the in-game Twitter updates that kept us apprised of the action now trickle like California's water supply when they come at all. That's because the folks who let us know what was going on -- while dealing with 17 other things -- left FIU.
FIU Athletics media relations department needs replenishment in quantity and quality. In a short span, the office lost three staffers of uncompromising integrity, high work ethic and tremendous patience with the sometimes harassing conditions (faulty equipment, many people looking over their shoulders, etc.) of their jobs. Each was in charge of certain sports and were part of the mini-army for sports that needed multiple staffers at home games, i.e. football, baseball, the basketballs.
They write the stories for the FIUsports.com website, handle interview requests, do pregame and postgame notes for distribution to the media and a pile of other stuff not appreciated by many outside the media industry.
Conference USA gets another bowl tie-in with the birth of the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl, Dec. 29.
CUSA, the Sun Belt and Mountain West will rotate in supplying teams for this new bowl in Tucson and a CUSA team is expected to be part of the inaugural party. So, one more chance for postseason play if FIU can get to six wins.
Volleyball -- Tuesday vs. Florida Gulf Coast, 7 p.m.
Neither linebacker Treyvon Williams or offensive lineman Trenton Saunders lost their walking stick sets Wednesday. Ron Turner still called them "possible" for Saturday's game against UMass.
I'm calling "Coachspeak." Turner's playing the same game the Dolphins did last week when they kept listing offensive tackle Branden Albert as "Doubtful" even as he couldn't practice all week. They're out. Why would you risk playing your starting middle linebacker and a starting guard in a non-conference game at anything less than 100 percent when your stated goal is to win Conference USA and you're only one game into your conference season?
Wide receivers Shawn Abrams and Juwan Caesar will be available Saturday, adding height and speed to the receiving corps. I asked Turner about the lack of deep shots taken Saturday. He said some were called, but Louisiana Tech sat in the right defense for them. He credited sophomore quarterback Alex McGough for checking out of those plays and not forcing the issue.
"I think they were determined to not give us big plays," he said.
Now to my Conference USA Not-So-Secret Six
1. Western Kentucky (3-1, 1-0 in Conference USA) -- Swashbuckling along, Western brings the most unstoppable offense into Rice Stadium since Larry Csonka trampled Minnesota in Super Bowl VIII. Bob Griese threw seven passes that day. Western's Brad Doughty might throw that on his first drive.
2. Louisiana Tech (2-2, 1-1 in conference) -- Yeah, the Bulldogs couldn't put away a reeling FIU team until late. Still, Tech can run the ball, play run defense and quarterback Jeff Driskel refuses to turn the ball over. That's most football coaches' version of a hot stone massage.
3. Marshall (3-1, 0-0) -- Needed OT to unplug Kent State's MACtion. The Herd's top three rushers average 6.6, 5.6 and 5.7 yards per carry. So, Michael Birdsong and Chase Litton have simple jobs: don't fumble the snap or the handoff, don't throw the ball to Not-Marshall's jersey.
4. Middle Tennessee State (2-2, 1-0) -- That late failure in a two-point loss to Illinois confirmed that Conference USA's competitive with the Big Ten...if you took the top of C-USA and matched them against the Big Ten's backseat little brothers.
5. Southern Miss (2-2, 0-0) -- Then again, Nebraska's not a backseat Big Ten team (at least not permanently) and Southern Miss played the Cornhuskers tight in a 36-28 loss. Junior quarterback Nick Mullins has 10 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
6. Rice (2-2, 1-0) -- Baylor's good. But giving up 70, like some FCS paid whipping boy? Be better.
The day after getting Conference USA's Men's Soccer Offensive Player of the Week (Luis Betancur) and Women's Soccer Offensive Player of the Week (Scarlet Montoya), FIU received CUSA's Women's Golfer of the Week in the person of senior Meghan MacLaren.
Last year's conference Golfer of the Year shot a 7-under 209 to finish fourth at the Johnie Imes Invitational. Missouri hosted the event at The Club at Old Hawthorne, a par-72 course.