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A few thoughts on Pitt 42, FIU 25

Was this the best effort of the Ron Turner Regime? Possibly.

Look, you can't blame anybody for what eventually happened. The sun came up in the west, the woman at Publix didn't close the lids properly on my coladas and the team with beef pounded the team with bombs when the latter ran out of bombs too soon. The former never runs out of beef. That's why you have to put them down far enough to where they've got to shelve the beef.

Pitt's brings Buicks with boost. On Pitt quarterback Chad Voytik's first two big runs, 335-pound freshman center Alex Officer pulled out in front and buried a safety. And Officer started camp as the third string center. Though huge running back James Conner rolled up 177 yards on 31 carries, there were times where he reminded me more of Franco Harris, a big guy with dancing feet. (When Harris and smallish Lydell Mitchell were at Penn State, they were pushed as the new Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside with the twist being the bulkier back was Mr. Outside).That did not include the 20-yard carry on which Conner powered through the hole and Demarkus Perkins' tackle like a Peterbilit rampaging through a parking lot. While Conner dragged a rap group of FIU tacklers 6 or 7 yards, Perkins went to the sideline with his right arm hanging for a few plays.

FIU couldn't run with any consistency, either, leaving them long third downs. FIU on third down=Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football. Or worse -- three for 14 this week.

Overall, what we knew probably would happen did happen. Still, FIU hung in with Pitt as well as Boston College did. Boston College beat USC Saturday night. The point isn't that FIU can beat Boston College (maybe) or USC (no). But FIU spent a good chunk of a game playing on a higher level than they've previously shown in the last two years, similar to Alabama-Birmingham last week against Mississippi State. They didn't look like a team marching to another 1-11. Next week's opponent, Louisville, lost Saturday to Virginia, an ACC team with a 10-game losing streak to FBS teams going into this weekend.

Despite the near inevitability of the outcome, this Safety Saturday still left much to discuss.

Let's start with quarterback switching. EJ Hilliard came into the game right after Pitt made it 16-7. The previous possession, working from the FIU 4, the coaching staff clearly feared a turnover or a safety (imagine if they knew two safeties remained to be scored). They played it safe on first down, waved the white flag on third and 9 with an Alex Gardner run. FIU had scored touchdowns the two drives before that, when they let McGough play. The deep ball he'd been working to improve had just worked for a 57-yard score to Glenn Coleman.

(Three games into the season and Coleman has a 57-yard touchdown and Richard Leonard has an interception return for a touchdown, a 71-yard punt return to set up a touchdown and a fumble caused. Those two guys were the cheap points coupons FIU lacked last year.)

"We'll look at the film, decide where we're going," Turner said. "We came into this game saying we're going to play both guys. EJ knew he was going in at some point, so we put him in. And then we put him in in the second half." He also said he didn't think taking McGough out took him out of any rhythm. 

Sometimes, Turner's classic Football Coach. Coaches love to stick with their plans. Game plans, personnel plans, pregame meal plans, vacation plans, plans for where the kid will go to college. There's a time to treat those plans like God's lightning etched them in stone on Mount John McKay.

That time is "never."

I'd have stayed with McGough. After one three-and-out Hilliard possession, Turner went back to McGough on FIU's last two possessions of the half.

Hilliard's second half appeareance went much better, leading FIU to a field goal before the panicky intentional grounding, which is a safety when committed in the end zone. Turner said he tried to argue Hilliard was outside the tackle box, but he thought it was probably a good call.

Another good call, a coaching one, that needs notice: defensive coordinator Josh Conklin's call for a blitz when Pitt started on their own 8. Jeremiah McKinnon said FIU expected the play action pass. Voytik showed no recognition of a blitz coming from that side. The blitz might as well have changed the ball to the Orb of Confusion.

 

Pitt seemed to get a little cute early, evidence of them taking FIU lightly, as Conner admitted afterward. They got burned for it on the safety. They almost got burned again, near the end of the half when sophomore cornerback Wilkenson Myrtil jumped a predictable short route. Myrtil did well to get the interception. Had he been able to keep his feet at all, later. But I had just thought, this seems like time for a Richard Leonard interception return touchdown. Slow, predictable routes and fast corners make for a dangerous way to live.

Covering the game live and re-watching via DVR (or as much of it as I could -- rookie move, Fox Sports 1, switching it to Fox Sports 2 out of the lightning delay), it's hard to believe freshman linebacker Anthony Wint had only four tackles.

Turner said FIU didn't get anything going into the wind all day. True enough, when going east to west, FIU scored 25 while being shutout when heading for the big clock in the second and third quarters. Pitt managed to score 26 points going east to west, 16 points going west to east. Then again, Pitt didn't lose its starting center in the third quarter as FIU did when Donald Senat got carted off.

"First down, it seemed like we ran the ball, we got nothing," Turner said. "If we threw the ball, it was incomplete, so we got nothing. We were faced with long yardage situations the whole second and third quarter."

Turner also pointed to the wind when giving a Tony Sparano explanation for why he didn't go for a Hail Mary at the end of the half after Myrtil's interception gave FIU the ball at the FIU 42 with seven seconds left.

"We didn't want to risk anything to give them an opportunity to get something," Turner said. "We were going into a hell of a wind and we had a ways go to."

If he thinks McGough couldn't have gotten the ball to the end zone, OK, that's a point. But what about the possibility of a pass interference or a catch-and-face mask? The half can't end on a defensive penalty. Or the possibility that somebody makes a catch and runs it into the end zone? Why indulge in disaster think when you're trying to pull an upset and big plays bring your points? There's seven seconds left. I've seen maybe one Hail Mary intercepted and run back for a score.

It reminded me of Sparano's explanation for why he didn't order a Hail Mary at the end of the first half of a Dolphins-Green Bay game in 2010. He said if the Packers had picked off the pass and run it back, the media would've been all over him for throwing it. I thought,\ at the time, so you didn't take a low percentage shot at a good play because of the infinitesimal percentage possibility of a bad play?

Speaking of the wind, punter Chris Ayers had a terrible day. The punt snap from Sam Medlock that turned into a safety skipped through Ayers hands. Tough, but makeable scoop. Aside from the punt roll on his 54-yarder that preceded the McKinnon safety, Ayers didn't hit anything well in either direction. Eventually, Argentine rugby club member Jose Laphitzondo replaced Ayers. He nailed a 40-yarder into the wind before putting a post-safety free kick out of bounds.

"Somebody's got to step up and execute," Turner said. "We'll keep looking until we find someone."

The longest Pitt drive for points was 50 yards. That's not helping your defense.

I thought the lightning delay actually helped FIU delay the destruction. Pitt pushed FIU around on the 47-yard touchdown drive before the stoppage. The Pitt crew was starting to open holes and pave sidewalks. The delay gave FIU time to recover. Also, that's a once a week occurrence at training camp.

I'll just say this about the crowd. 

Both as a guy raised on Midwestern early afternoon kickoffs and a guy who likes a deadline I can make at a canter, I used to lament FIU's lack of noon or 1 p.m. kickoffs. No more. I'm not sure I'd pay to roast on the racks of the No Shade Cage throughout a four-hour college football game unless the Associated Press is mentioning my team Sunday evening.

Now, if it was free, different story. I did kind of hope students in the Towers or Parkview falling out of bed in the early afternoon would see the score, go "Whoa!" and wobble across the street.

Also not making an appearance was cornerback Randy Harvey. Conference USA didn't have anything extra for him after last week's brief post-play sparring session with a Wagner wide receiver. Clearly, Turner did.

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