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Gameday VIII: A Plan For Marshall; Women Win in OT

It's been a busy Friday -- writing, playdates, cooking for playdates, Sushi Samba -- I've got a Breast Cancer Awareness Walk early Saturday followed by a post-walk social followed by the game. So, let's get to the nitty, as Joe Bob Briggs would say, and get out of here.

Let's start with: the Homecoming Council members connected with booking the Homecoming week concerts (DJ Tiesto) and comedy acts (D.L. Hughley, Eddie Griffin) should get free drinks and hot stone massages for a month. Great gets.

Whoever can claim connection with scheduling Homecoming for the week of the Marshall game should get hot stones thrown at them. Did somebody not see Florida State or Alabama on the schedule and figure, "Oh, what's the difference between Marshall and Rice?" The weekend FIU wants to end on a feelgood note and somebody picks the weekend FIU plays a team that's not just thinking "we must go undefeated" but "we must score like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Clinton at Studio 54 and engineer 1983 Nebraska blowouts?" That's cooking bacon naked, just asking for trouble.

Speaking of the Cornhuskers, next year Nebraska's comes down for a Sept. 19 game against the Hurricanes. Why not see if the Children of the Corn will go for a full week in South Florida bookended with games? See if they'll drop Southern Mississippi Sept. 26, and pick up the Panthers. Then, FIU can have Nebraska for Homecoming! If you're going to get spanked at Homecoming, get the people whose predecessors practically trademarked 69-17 and has 48 years of experience delivering it.

The FIU coaching staff should've made t-shirts this week saying "Keep Calm and Do Your Job." The first part is for the offense. The second part is for each individual member of the defense.

Taking the second part first...you can talk all you want about FIU's offense helping the defense against this juggernaut offense by "shortening the game" or "keeping their offense off the field." FIU's defense is going to have to stop Marshall's offense at some point. It'll have to do it more than once.

FIU defensive coordinator Josh Conklin described Marshall's offense simply: spread out to make the defense play seven against the run, four against the pass and beat you in the one-on-one showdowns. They bet on opponents not having enough quality defensive backs to cover their receivers. They also bank that opponents won't have enough players who can get off blocks before 243-pound Devon Johnson starts his Peterbilt imitation.

"There's more pressure on each individual job, controlling his gap," Conklin said. "If he's got the quarterback, he's got the quarterback. If he's got the dive, he's got the dive. That's what they've build their system around."

Does seeing how Pitt's big, athletic line and James Conner simply wore down FIU last month make you wonder why Marshall would do any more than occasional passing. Here's why: they want points. Big, fat hunks of creamy carbo-loaded points to build obese blowouts and grab attention of decision-makers who sniff at Marshall's schedule quality. Also, quarterback Rakeem Cato's their best player. You don't take the ball out of your best player's hands too often.

So, they're going to throw the ball on FIU and they're going to look for the matchups. On the outside, expect them to go after junior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon instead of redshirt junior Richard Leonard. Their DVR isn't broken. Leonard's simply having a better year against better receivers. The last time Cato saw Leonard, who Phil Steele named a Third Team All-America in his midseason awards, Leonard got an interception in The Beef O'Brady's Bowl.

And they like to throw long. Cato's got the second best yards per completion in the nation.

“Their wide receivers do a great job at the top of their deep ball routes of finishing the routes,” Conklin said Tuesday. “I just told (the cornerbacks) today, we’ve got to get used to finishing on the deep ball.”

Meaning “going attacking at the high point. Not waiting for it," he continued. "A deep ball’s a 50-50 ball, we’ve got to think about we’re turning into the wide receiver, and we’ve got to go get it, not wait for it. If you get position on the wide receiver, great. But now we’ve got to go attack it.”

Marshall's allowed only eight sacks in six games. It'll be tough to get to Cato. Sometimes, however, a good middle push that prevents a quarterback from stepping into a throw works as well as pressure off the ends. Those throws come with a little zip minus, giving coverage time for recovery or interception positioning. Cato's thrown five interceptions and fumbled three times, losing one. Marshall's lost six fumbles as a team. Add it up and the FIU bakery should be open for more turnovers. The Panthers haven't won a game this year without a defensive touchdown. They probably won't beat Marshall without one.

Without much of an offense, FIU yapped at Marshall's heels last year, up 3-0 after one quarter and down 13-3 until the last minutes of the second. A Marshall interception and touchdown drive ended the half 20-3. And, "aloha" means good-bye. 

"The approach we take this year will be a lot different," Conklin said. "Last year, our deal was, we're going to come out trying to blitz and pressure, then kind of settle in. This year, we're structured differently. We feel like we've got a better plan in terms of how to defend them."

Offensively, keep calm. That's what FIU head coach Ron Turner knows he has to do as a play caller especially if Marshall gets off to its normal start.

Marshall's given up 132 yards and zero points in 30 plays on six first opponent drives. Meanwhile, The Herd has scored four touchdowns and a field goal on its six opening drives and hasn't trailed all season.

Too often, coaches facing a Marshall get down early, 10-0, 14-0 and go into full Costanza fire mode.

 

Coaches start reaching for a desperation big punch instead of building their way back into the game. Look for FIU to keep trying to run the ball, throwing the slants and bubble screens. One thing they might want to try, though, especially against fifth-year senior corner Darryl Roberts early -- some type of hitch and go with a serious speedster. Roberts will play in the receiver's mouthpiece and sit on the short stuff early. Just as Texas-San Antonio got the rhythm of FIU's plays, guessed right and got a tipped pass interception, he'll be trying to do the same. FIU needs to throw some wariness into Roberts early.

Middle Tennessee State, with a jumbled line and a few running backs, got to Marshall on the ground off option runs. FIU can do that. Maybe the Panthers can run it with stretch plays, also.

FIU needs to get early points and stay in the game for a half. Here's Marshall's halftime scores this season: 28-3, 17-0, 27-0, 31-3, 42-7, 28-17. The Herd's experienced, but do they even remember what it's like to be in a one-score game at halftime? Throw in the factor of several Marshall players from South Florida getting the rare or last chance to play in front of the home folks and parts can get awfully tight if the score stays close. 

But, cooked down to the rock, it's a veteran team at its peak against a young team hoping to bounce back from disappointment.

Marshall 48, FIU 24.

That's one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.

WOMEN'S SOCCER

FIU took a 1-0 lead into the final minute on Shelby Bowden's first goal of the season. Then, the drama began.

Rice scored with 29 seconds left in regulation to tie the game. In the 97th minute, FIU senior Ashleigh Shim set up fifth-year senior Chelsea Leiva for Leiva's fifth game-winner of the season (ranking fifth nationally), a golden goal that gave FIU a 2-1 win.  FIU, 7-6-1 overall and 2-2-1 in Conference USA plays North Texas Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m.

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