Before we get started with Saturday night, let us say the biggest, season-turning football game in town Sunday at 1 p.m. is at FIU.
I didn't say American football.
Women's soccer went into last weekend with a chance to clinch a berth in the Conference USA tournament FIU will host in just over a week. A pair of 1-0 losses to Western Kentucky and Marshall leave the 8-9 Panthers at 4-4 in conference play and in danger of missing the tournament again. There's 10 teams still in realistic contention for eight spots.
FIU needs a result, as the soccer folks like to say, today against FAU on Senior Day. That's where I'd be if I wasn't part of The Herald's army at the other 1 p.m. game in town, the site of the first college-affiliated football rout in town Saturday.
As for the second...some electronic dap to football coach Ron Turner.
Football coaches can be downright dogmatic about following game plans and flat out scared kittens when faced with the possibility of risk. They tend to shy from the instinctive move, partially because there's rarely an easy explanation of it. Taking chances and following instincts guarantees you'll be second guessed if the concept fails. They don't like to be second-guessed and when, faced with the second guess, they want a Serena Williams second serve return -- a swift, powerful answer that gives them the point.
There's no way FIU went into Saturday's game against Old Dominion planning to run the ball only 33 times with three of those being sacks. There's no way the Panthers didn't anticipate having more than 94 yards rushing (119 yards Real Rushing, subtracting sacks). This is a team with a defense treated like a possum on I-95 by most of its opponents this year, a defense FIU moved out of the way for 256 yards on the ground last year.
Turner said they went into the game seeking balance. But, early on, sophomore quarterback Alex McGough's Accuracy Pills kicked in (even aside from the interminable bubble screens), while FIU's running game apparently got stuck in traffic near an quinceanera hall. So, Turner put the offense on McGough's shoulders even more than normal and he responded with 31 of 39 (with a few drops) for 390 yards and three touchdowns.
Should it be disconcerting that FIU, for the second straight week, twice failed badly in red zone short yardage situations and had to work way too hard to get the last yards on two drives that ended with 1-yard touchdowns? Unquestionably. Against a team better than Old Dominion (say, Middle Tennessee State) that can cost you the game.
On both those failures and the touchdown that put FIU up 14-0, Turner eschewed the field goal out of instinct:
"It was a feel thing. The reason we went for it on both those fourth downs in the red zone -- and I told the defense this -- is I had a lot of confidence we could stop them. The first one, I said 'If we stop them here, we get great field position. They've got to punt it to Richard. We'll have great field position. We'll take it in and score.' We didn't make it, they punted to Richard and we went down and scored. It was faith I had in our offense to make it, No. 1, and then our defense to get us a stop and give us good field position."
Let's be clear, I disagreed with both decisions, though the first worked exactly as Turner hoped. On the second drive of the game, after you've already scored a touchdown on the first, especially if you're up 7-0, I believe in taking the points as a psychological punch to your opponent. They don't know yet that they can stop you from scoring on any given drive. Also, coaches tend to get more nervous than a Bob in a biker bar down 10-0.
My thoughts on the second decision, with FIU up 27-12, were stated on Twitter Saturday night: stupid. Take the points, go up three scores with 4:55 left in the third, force Old Dominion away from the run. Don't stay within two big plays of a team that's blown up on you already for touchdown runs of 57 and 75 yards. When the Monarchs moved the ball Saturday, it wasn't in nibbles and bites. It was in chomps.
(I'm not saying Turner is stupid. I'm saying that was a stupid decision. Among the top three sentences my daughter has heard from me in her 10 years is "Sometimes, smart people do stupid things.")
Alex McGough's 1-yard quarterback sneak, the 14-0 touchdown, was into the end zone in front of the press box. Most of us in the press box and a few people on the field heard a whistle before the snap. Weird.
Turner could rely on a big Richard Leonard return. That's what Leonard's done the last few weeks -- 24.3 yards per punt return the last three games, 49.2 on kickoff returns. The creases not there before still aren't there -- they're gaps, evident early.
"We had some young guys in there," Turner said. "They're starting to understand more angles and where to be. They're giving him an opportunity. You give him an opportunity, the first guy's not going to tackle him. He gets by the first guy, they're doing a good job of giving him seams."
Big ups to the defensive line. They got rolled by Middle. Saturday, they stuffed Old Dominion bowling ball Ray Lawry on a do-it-or-don't play at the end of the first half from the 1. Different game if he scores there, then Pascal opens the second half with his 75 yard run to put the Monarchs in front.
Defensive tackle Leonard Washington would've taken the fumble all the way back 74 yards if one more teammate escorting him had thrown a block instead of started celebrating the Big Man Touchdown early. The last time he had a football in his hand on the field, Washington said, he took a fumble back all the way for New Orleans Carr High.
Like anybody else with a heart, I love to see the big guys grab the ball and run for glory.