Before this season, much of the college football viewing public probably would have misidentified “Kolton Browning” as a designer of Savile Row suits, a Western movie protagonist or a gun.
Any of those guesses could have been corrected by those on FIU’s defense. The Panthers know Kolton Browning plays quarterback for Louisiana-Monroe with the smoothness of a Savile Row suit, a cowboy’s daring and more than a six-shooter for an arm. Saturday, FIU sees Browning for the final time.
Seeing him is one thing. Harnessing him is something else. Browning accounted for 756 yards of total offense against FIU in 2010 and 2011.
This season, Browning averages 305.1 yards per game of total offense, first in the Sun Belt and 17th in the nation, while guiding an offense that averages 36.6 points per game, No.1 in the Sun Belt Conference and No. 25 in the country. That total offense average includes a 40-24 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette, in which Browning sustained a first-half foot/ankle injury after completing 5 of 7 passes for 124 yards and running twice for 24 yards. In his nine full games, Browning has averaged 322.6 yards per game, which would be 11th in the nation.
Without Browning, ULM lost to Louisiana-Lafayette 40-24, Arkansas State 45-23 and lost a shot at the Sun Belt title. A season that began with an upset of Arkansas and narrow shootout losses to Auburn and Baylor still could end in a bowl game.
“He’s got to be one of the smartest players I’ve seen on tape,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “Watching him against Western Kentucky, he knows it’s a cover-zero blitz. He waited until the last second to spin out and let those edge rushers crash into each other, buy some time, and hit an out cut that came free late. He understands coverages, he understands the shell of a defense. He understands when it’s time to make a play, when it’s time to tuck and run.”
He also knows when to throw the ball away. Of his 33 incompletions last year against FIU, several were chucks well out of bounds to avoid a sack.
In some ways, that game summarizes Browning. FIU squashed him for almost the entire first half as the Panthers took a 28-7 lead (ULM got on the scoreboard via kickoff return). Despite playing behind a wounded line and with a bruised sternum, starting with ULM’s 10-play drive that ended the first half, Browning ran or threw on all but one play the rest of the game.
Browning finished with 101 yards rushing and accounted for 347 of ULM’s 356 offensive yards. Only a Richard Leonard interception, a fourth-and-1 stop at the FIU 22 and a missed field-goal attempt kept the 28-17 FIU win from having cliffhanger drama.
Even before the injury, Browning ran less as the season wore on. FIU’s pass rush, with 16 sacks in the last five games, should test Browning’s mobility Saturday.
“Just bring pressure all night,” FIU linebacker Jordan Hunt said. “He’s a tough guy to contain, but we know he’s kind of injured right now. He can throw, he can run. And he makes really smart decisions.”