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.