Alex Gardner posted a not-so-subtle message to his Twitter account Friday:
“All I want to do is ball,” the FIU running back wrote.
The University of Massachusetts would probably agree.
Gardner basically doubled his rushing output for the season Saturday in FIU’s 21-13 loss to the Minutemen. The junior from Jacksonville rushed for 130 yards on 23 carries, including a 2-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
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“He’s always a bright spot,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “He plays his heart out every single day.”
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses for Gardner, however. He lost a fumble in the red zone in the second quarter and then was dropped behind the line of scrimmage on third-and-1 in the final period.
“I know it’s a team sport, but I put this loss on myself,” Gardner said. “I can’t turn the ball over in the red zone like that. I cost us some points. That’s crucial.”
A gambler, Turner was not Saturday.
Twice in the first half, he faced fourth-and-manageable decisions. Twice, he kicked.
On the first occasion, the Panthers still scored points. Turner sent in kicker Austin Taylor on fourth-and-2 from the Minutemen’s 29. Taylor powered through a 47-yard field goal to give FIU its only score of the half.
Late in the second quarter, Turner elected to punt on fourth-and-5 from the UMass 37.
When Turner had little choice to go for it down two scores in the second half, he was rewarded for it. Quarterback Alex McGough hooked up with Stantley Thomas beyond the sticks on fourth-and-7 from the UMass 31. But it didn’t sway Turner, who later in the game punted on fourth-and-short near midfield.
UMass coach Mark Whipple wasn’t nearly as cautious. He called a running play on fourth-and-a-foot from his own 44 in the second half. It backfired. Niko Gonzalez and Newton Salisbury tackled Marquis Young short of the line of scrimmage.
The Minutemen weren’t great on third down. But compared to the Panthers, they were excellent.
FIU converted just 2 of 13 third-down chances, going 0 for 6 in the first half.
Meanwhile, a key missed Panthers tackle in the second quarter directly led to UMass’ second touchdown.
Linebacker Anthony Wint had a clean shot on quarterback Andrew Ford in the backfield on third-and-5 from the Panthers’ 45. But Wint came up empty, allowing Ford to scramble for a first down. On the next play, he found Andy Isabella on a 31-yard scoring strike.
“I missed a play right there,” Wint said. “I was free-rushing. That’s just a miscue on my part and it led to a touchdown. Me messing up and me not doing my job correlates with touchdowns.”
UMass has an excellent business school. So the Minutemen know the importance of change.
Case in point: If FIU corner Deonte Wilson has wideout Shakur Nesmith locked down, throw to someone else.
Wilson stepped in front of an Ford pass intended for Nesmith and picked it off on the game’s first drive. Later in the quarter, Wilson broke up a deep pass that was in Nesmith’s hands.
So, UMass stopped doing that. Not coincidentally, the Minutemen’s offense improved, scoring touchdowns on two of three drives.