E.J. Hilliard, last year’s First Team All-Dade 8A-6A quarterback, graduated from Miami Northwestern High a semester early and enrolled at FIU early to participate in spring practice.
Now, Hilliard assumes some responsibility for FIU’s chances at a Sun Belt title and/or a third consecutive bowl bid earlier than anticipated. Jake Medlock, the redshirt sophomore who started FIU’s four non-conference games, will miss the next four weeks, at least, with a left foot fracture sustained in the second quarter Saturday in the 28-21 loss against No. 20 Louisville.
That time frame covers FIU’s first four Sun Belt games — Saturday at Louisiana-Lafayette; Oct. 4, home against Arkansas State; Oct. 13, home against Middle Tennessee State; and Saturday, Oct. 20 at Troy. At 1-3, FIU’s margin for error in becoming bowl eligible measures out to three losses. It’s likely to take fewer than that to win the Sun Belt.
In Saturday’s second half, Hilliard completed nine of 10 passes for 82 yards and a touchdown. He used his feet to buy himself time to throw, especially on a 22-yard pass to Jacob Younger that saw Hilliard flushed left, plant and throw all the way back right to a wide open Younger.
Hilliard’s accuracy got him the nod over redshirt freshman Lorenzo Hammonds Jr., who came in for the last FIU drive of the second quarter after Medlock’s injury. Hammonds relieved Medlock for half a drive against Central Florida when Medlock came out of the game with a hand injury. Between the two appearances, Hammonds threw one pass, a badly thrown ball that UCF nearly intercepted.
“We went with Lorenzo for a little bit [Saturday], but when I saw the way [the Cardinals] were packing the box as much as they did, I went with E.J,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “Actually, I was thinking about using them both. But E.J. as he settled down a little bit, he started to get more comfortable and making some plays.
“Once he settled down, he did some things that are certainly going to — have to — help us win games.”
Senior running back Jeremiah Harden, said, “His demeanor in the huddle showed he was ready. Everybody was backing him up, saying, “Let’s go, let’s move forward, let’s score, let’s win the game.’ ” He stepped up really well.”
Hilliard might have the benefit of a full complement of running backs next Saturday at Louisiana, something he didn’t have against Louisville. Harden ran for 102 yards on 20 carries in handling the running back load for the last three quarters, aside from three carries by redshirt freshman Shane Coleman.
Junior Kedrick Rhodes missed Saturday’s game with a right ankle injury, but could be back next week. Senior running back Darian Mallary will be back after Saturday’s game in the first quarter with what Cristobal said Saturday was probably a concussion.
FIU almost got the ball back with two timeouts and a little more than three minutes left, but redshirt freshman T.J. Lowder upended punter Ryan Johnson after just missing blocking the punt on a middle rush. Throughout the night, FIU kept narrowly failing to block Ryan Johnson’s punts. But this penalty extended Louisville’s drive and FIU never got the ball back.
“They were all called, every single one,” Cristobal said of the decisions to go for the block. “Poor judgment, the guy’s trying to make a play and give us a short field. But it (the punt block) was called.”