A nod to the FIU male futbol bunch, 2-1 winners over Fairfield in almost as dramatic fashion as the pigskin guys won in up in Orlando. Speaking of which...
About a half hour after sophomore quarterback Alex McGough kidded teammate Thomas Owens that he owed him $5 for leaving Owens one reception short of T.Y. Hilton's single game FIU record and the Instagram timelines filled with selfies and Herald's Al Diaz shots of celebration, it struck me ironic:
What the Panthers celebrated like boys was maturity.
As much as two teams can in Week 1 college-affiliated football, FIU and UCF played a grown man football game.
There was a good atmosphere. Despite a steamy, sunny early evening, UCF's students grabbed their church-style hand fans, filled the student section and fulfilled their nickname for Bright House Networks Stadium ("The Bounce House"). The stadium wasn't packed, but rocked (literally) -- the normal-size press box swayed like the press box at Hialeah's Milander Park used to during rivalry games there.
Down on the field, the two teams crashed their way through the kind of game expected. This wasn't Gwen Cherry Park 7-on-7 with thigh pads, fat scoring summaries and backups putting up 100 yards rushing or receiving. UCF had four significant offensive possessions: a short-field touchdown drive, a regular-length touchdown drive, a failed fourth down at the FIU 20 and a blocked field goal off a two-minute drill. FIU had four significant offensive possessions: touchdown drives of 80 and 82 yards, a 76-yard drive to a field goal and a badly missed field goal off a two-minute drill before halftime.
(By the way, dumb call by George O'Leary on that fourth and 1 from the FIU 20 with the Knights up 14-9 in the third quarter. A low-scoring game, FIU's punked your run all night and you don't go for a 37-yard field goal to go up a touchdown and two-point conversion? Now, I think any UCF fan screaming for O'Leary's head after where that program was before he got there and what they've done the last five seasons can be considered too childish to live independently. But that decision seemed stupid macho, football's version of thinking with the lower head instead of the upper one.)
People hit. Most got up. A few got hurt. FIU senior linebacker Davison Colimon suffered a shoulder injury of undetermined seriousness. Senior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon suffered a hamstring injury that has over a week to heal before FIU takes the Memorial Stadium field at Indiana.
But where FIU showed maturity not in the winning, but in the how.
The Panthers won without getting turnovers by the peck. Longtime readers here can probably say the next two sentences by heart after an Amsterdam afternoon. In the five wins under Ron Turner, here's the turnover numbers: four, six, six, four, five. And all four wins last year included a defensive touchdown. Exciting though that is, that's like living off Pick 4 and Cash 3 winnings instead of having a regular job. Thursday? No turnovers. The closest they came to getting one might've been the first drive of the game, when junior safety Wilkenson Myrtil jumped a route to the wide side of the field after UCF quarterback Justin Holman's pass took too long at launch. Myrtil dropped a pick six. UCF linemen recovered the strip sacks by senior defensive ends Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine.
FIU just played sound defense, especially against the run and eventually against the pass. So many UCF runs seemed to get disrupted before they started. Wakefield, senior defensive tackle Darrian Dyson and sophomore linebacker Anthony Wint seemed to mess things up consistently. Junior linebacker Treyvon Williams made a game-high 11 tackles. As O'Leary admitted afterwards, the Panthers front seven got tremendous penetration in the gaps and really didn't get moved. No push, no lane, no go. Take out the two sacks and UCF ran for 60 yards on 28 carries, a picayune 2.14 yards per carry.
FIU stopped UCF three times on third or fourth down runs when UCF needed two yards or less. When UCF called what looked like a delayed quarterback draw on third and 2 in the third quarter, it was an acknowledgement to FIU from UCF: your line of scrimmage. We'll do something else.
The first of those stops might've been the most important in the game. Down 14-3 after consecutive UCF touchdown drives, FIU went three and out. UCF got the ball at its own 35 and FIU needed a stop like Miami needs coladas at 4 p.m. On third and 2, 5-10, 217-pound Dontravious Wilson tried the middle. Williams led the stuffing. Bupkiss. UCF punted.
Once McKinnon went out, UCF put the T-Buck Target on his replacements. Earlier, the Knights attacked the only starters lacking significant collegiate game experience at their position, FIU's safeties. UCF's enormous 6-3, 237-pound Jordan Akins beat Myrtil, who slipped for his first touchdown. Akins beat sophomore Niko Gonzalez for a 20-yard gain the next drive, setting up a 33-yard touchdown catch over the middle and behind the linebackers. Akins ended with nine catches for 109 yards, but only three for 41 in the second half.
On offense, nobody showed more maturity than McGough. The numbers -- 29 of 38 for 260 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, four runs for 12 yards -- don't tell all that he showed.
UCF's line got pressure on him consistently. Only once did McGough possibly hold on to the ball too long. Few throws, maybe two, looked as if he disobeyed the "if it don't fit, don't force it" maxim that applies to many life situations. He smartly threw the ball away at least three times. No interceptions, as mentioned, and no sacks taken.
The two big completions on FIU's second touchdown drive, 47 yards to Ya'Keem Griner and 23 yards to running back Alex Gardner, were adjustments. McGough said his first read on the Griner completion was wide receiver Dennis Turner, but as he stepped up on the rollout, he saw Griner come open downfield. The Gardner play was a check down dump off to a favorable matchup, Gardner on a linebacker.
Throughout the first half, McGough saw UCF's corners playing softly against Owens. He took what the defense gave to the tune of 10 completions to Owens for 70 yards. Maturity.
In his first game since the season-ending shoulder injury, Gardner looked like he'd been waiting to burst for 10 months. His 27-yard running essay with a first quarter screen pass, on which he broke lienbacker Chequan Burkett's tackle and put a Michael Jackson spin move on safety Drico Johnson, will be a film room favorite. Had Gardner not getting slightly tripped going through the hole on the next possession, he'd have had an 89-yard touchdown run. Instead, a frantically recovering Burkett had time to punch the ball out. FIU will take Gardner's 149 yards receiving and rushing out of its lead running back any day.
In this grown up game, the Panthers got contributions from kids. Tedshirt freshman right tackle Daquane Willkie started. Freshman Anthony Jones showed why some other schools made belated attempts to recruit him. Jones zoomed to a 26-yard run off a pitch and his almost Sanders-esque bobbing elusiveness got 15 yards out of a hitch pass. Freshman punter Stone Wilson averaged 47.7 yards per punt to redshirt junior Chris Ayers' 42.0.
FIU spent the first half getting the ball a DisneyWorld monorail ride from the UCF end zone. Turner said when they went in at halftime, nobody freaked. They figured things could be worse than 14-3 after a half with no field position and down one turnover on the road. What did they do with the second half opening kickoff? Moved 82 yards to a touchdown in a drive that included the two Jones' touches. Maturity.
Nobody plays a perfect game. FIU didn't just fail to close out the game with proper execution of the four-minute offense, the Panthers did the worst thing possible, three-and-out. On the unsuccessful third and 1, they gave the ball to Gardner instead of the more bullish Anthon Samuel. Turner said Samuel was fine, he was just going with the hot back. The timeout usage at the end as UCF moved into field goal range, especially after Jordan Guest's personal foul for a late helmet-to-helmet spear on a sliding Justin Holman? Late. Like, Miami time late. By the time FIU started to call timeouts, too little clock remained to give FIU any decent possession time had UCF scored.
So what? FIU played a good game on the road in a season opener against a talented, young UCF team (rather see the Knights now than in November). The Panthers justified the confidence they've had in themselves by doing things well they previously did poorly or erratically.
The next part of maturity? Consistency.