A common refrain from Butch Davis after practices and games is that sometimes, there’s more to can be learned in a loss than after a victory.
Following FIU’s 42-14 loss at Tulane, the Panthers’ head coach sounded like his team has more question marks than solid answers.
“We didn’t play well in all three phases and that starts with me and our coaches. I’m very anxious to see where exactly the breakdowns were, why we couldn’t keep the quarterback clean,” said Davis.
Thursday night’s loss makes for FIU’s third consecutive season-opening loss (2017 at UCF, 2018 vs. Indiana), but the Panthers have rebounded to make bowl games in both years.
However, the goal for the 2019 season is well beyond a bowl appearance.
There’s an inordinate amount of talent on this team for anything less than a Conference USA championship to be the aspirations.
The issue is that talent can only get them so far, at some point, it’s show and prove time for FIU.
The loss against Tulane was maddening because a major issue that plagued the team in their losses last season reared its ugly head - an inability to stop the run.
When asked about the run defense, Davis offered this insight.
“Give credit to Tulane, but you’re always somewhat worried how much tackling you should do preseason. You look up every day and a team loses a guy for the year. Quite frankly, we don’t have enough depth to lose too many guys in practice,” said Davis.
Points off of Turnovers
In 2018, the Panthers were one of the best teams in Conference USA in turnover margin, which helped them win multiple close games.
What didn’t help FIU against the Green Wave was gifting them 14 points off of turnovers.
After Tulane thwarted their opening drive with penalties that caused them to punt, the normally sure-handed James Morgan threw an interception on the FIU drive that led to a Green Wave touchdown.
“I’m not mad at James, we have to do a better job of giving him time so he’s not scrambling around back there trying to make plays,” said Davis.
With just under four minutes in the first half, FIU scored to make the game 21-7.
Then, linebacker Jamal Gates stripped Tulane running back Darius Bradwell and Sage Lewis recovered the ball inside of the Green Wave’s 40-yard-line.
One play later, Morgan fumbled on a bizarre play where he lost the grip on a slick football while throwing. Tulane quarterback Justin McMillan would cash in to make it a three-score game at the half.
McMillian, who’s grandfather tragically died while on the way to the game, dedicated the game to his late elder.
“This was easily one of the most important games of my life. I played this game for him,” said McMillan.
If FIU can score seven points on that drive, they enter halftime down seven points with the ball to start the third quarter.
Both Davis and special teams coach James Vollono preach about “hidden yardage” that helps teams win games.
What they’re essentially talking about is winning the field position battle and avoiding penalties. FIU drastically underperformed in those two categories.
“We got beat in the hidden yardage game and we had a few bad punts that resulted in us giving them great field position,” said Davis.
Tommy Heatherly’s FIU debut was inconsistent.
His first punt went only 30 yards and that was after a 10-yard bounce and roll. That miscue led to the second Tulane score to put them up 14-0.
While he had two other punts that went 50+ yards, his shanks came at critical moments, which earned him a stern talking to from Davis and led to Thomas Leo handling the duties for the rest of the evening.
Leo averaged 46.5 yards on two kicks to Heatherly’s 36.2 on four punts.
Run Defense and Penalties
Albert Einstein's quote about the definition of insanity being the act of doing the same thing over and over to expect a different result could be one of the most used cliches in history.
However, for this FIU football team, something has to give in regard to their run defense, or else there’s no possible path for them to achieve their C-USA title hopes.
Outside of an errant snap that sent Justin McMillan for a 17-yard loss, the Panthers 357 rushing yards.
“We have some bigger and stronger guys across the offensive and defensive lines than we had last time we played them and it showed tonight,” said Tulane head coach Willie Fritz.
Cornerback Ike Brown was penalized twice and both of those helped extend Tulane scoring drives.
The first was a questionable holding call that came very late on a play. The second was just as questionable, but the veteran cornerback was equally to blame.
On a McMillan scramble where he was clearly slowing his forward progress and a yard out of bounds, Brown “pushed” Tulane’s signal-caller, which led to a 15-yard personal foul call.
The Green Wave would score a touchdown on the drive.
- Former FIU guard Jordan Budwig was in attendance, talking to the younger offensive linemen on the field and helping the support staff set up the postgame meal for the team outside of the Panther locker room.
- Butch Davis is usually very timely with his postgame press conference no matter the outcome. However, Thursday’s game ended at 10:12 Central Time and Davis didn’t emerge from the Panther locker room until 10:53 and went directly to the FIU buses after his postgame comments, which indicates just how frustrating the loss was for him.
- Due to Tulane’s defensive alignment, true freshman Kamareon Williams saw extensive time on the field and defensively, FIU lined up almost exclusively in a base 4-3 set.
- Running back D’Vonte Price didn’t make the trip to New Orleans but is expected to play against Western Kentucky.
- Tulane safeties coach JJ McClesky said postgame, “We definitely were surprised that 24 (Price) didn’t play, he’s their most dangerous back in our opinion.
- Among the final players to emerge from the locker room were linebacker Sage Lewis and quarterback James Morgan.