Saturday, a night of reruns on network TV, provides FIU the chance for its own rerun of the 2011 night the Panthers, to paraphrase a Louisville native in Miami Beach long ago, shook up the college football world.
Louisville wasn’t ranked as it is now (No. 20 in The Associated Press poll, No. 18 in the USA Today/Coaches poll), nor did anyone know the Cardinals would end the season as co-Big East champion. And FIU was 1-0 instead of 1-2. Still, the game set up as Big East Louisville and FIU from the Sun Belt, just as Saturday’s does.
So, surprise swept an ESPN audience as FIU clocked the Cardinals 24-17, spending most of the game with a double-digit lead after two long T.Y. Hilton touchdown catches and an almost-as-long Winston Fraser interception return touchdown.
“It proved a couple of things: That our program was getting better and better, [and] that we could compete on bigger stages,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “That was one thing we put away last year once it was over with. But, definitely a big moment in our history.”
You knew that from the way FIU players and coaches bounded, hugged and danced their way off the field in northern Kentucky. Or the way postgame interviews streamed out in a gasped euphoria.
Yet, FIU senior left tackle Caylin Hauptmann said Tuesday: “An opponent is an opponent. It really doesn’t matter who we’re playing on any given Saturday. If we win, we win, that’s our goal. If the occasion does come that we lose, we don’t like it, we try to go back the next week and fix things. It doesn’t change with who we’re playing or not playing that week.”
This week isn’t the same for Louisville. Not only did it lose at home to FIU, but its roster includes a busload of players from South Florida.
On Tuesday night, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (Miami Northwestern) acknowledged, “There’s a little tension going around the locker room this week.”
Hauptmann insisted, “Any other win that we had last season, it’s the same to us.”
It wasn’t the same to the program in the big picture. FIU’s first win against a team from an automatic qualifier BCS conference — a conference whose champion automatically qualifies for a BCS bowl — on national TV shoved the program into national conversation. Even if only for a night of rerun highlights, FIU football and FIU the school got media airplay.
After the game, then-men’s basketball coach Isiah Thomas text messaged athletic director Pete Garcia, “Do you know what this means?” in excitement that he might not have to explain to recruits what or where FIU was.
How much it helped in recruiting, football or otherwise can’t be quantified. The football team did manage to make a National Signing Day steal from Louisville, with linebacker Patrick Jean flipping to FIU, as part of its best-ranked recruiting class ever.
“I think any time your program continues to grow, it becomes more of a recognizable name and opens a few doors for you,” Cristobal said. “But again, every year we continue to raise the caliber of student athlete we recruit, so it’s going to continue to get more difficult. So, it’s all relative.”