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Key plays continue to crush FIU Panthers

FIU hasn’t been blown out from the start in any of its six losses this season, but it has been sunk by unfortunate turning points.

Close games get decided in the fourth quarter. That’s the facile view. Players and coaches know both close games and blowouts often get won or lost in the minutes sandwiching halftime. Just ask FIU, which faces Troy on Saturday afternoon.

In five of FIU’s six losses and even the Panthers’ one win, the game underwent a significant metamorphosis in the final minutes of the second quarter and the start of the third. Close games morphed into blowouts (losses to Duke and Louisiana-Lafayette). FIU leads shrank (loss to Middle Tennessee State) or got transformed into deficits (losses to Louisville and Arkansas State).

“Guys just lose focus or get too caught up in the moment,” FIU senior linebacker Winston Fraser said. “We’ve got to focus on every play and execute every play. Sometimes, we have mishaps.”

Fighting momentum and your opponent can be tough enough for teams working through a successful season. For teams being battered throughout a bad season, momentum can be a mentally crushing bully to the point that even when it starts to turn around, there’s often a flinch of “here we go again.”

“I never think of it that way,” FIU senior safety Johnathan Cyprien said. “I try to tell the team constantly, every team is going to get a play. Every team has Division I athletes, just as we do. I try to tell them, even if a play occurs, let’s line back up and play again.”

Last week, Middle Tennessee’s offense had managed one significant drive before cutting a 20-3 lead to 20-10 on a 1 minute 31 second, 77-yard drive that ended eight seconds before halftime. That got cut to 20-17 just more than 2 1/2 minutes into the second half after a 75-yard drive. A blowout got blown.

Or, consider what happened against Louisville. Up 14-7, FIU allowed a drive that tied the game with 26 seconds left in the first half. After a Louisville three-and-out opened the second half, a fumbled punt gave Louisville the ball at the FIU 46. Nowhere else in that game did FIU’s defense give up three big rushing chunks as it did in the three-play drive that put Louisville up 21-14 just less than 2 1/2 minutes into the third quarter.

Usually, these changes featured failure by FIU’s defense. But it’s a team game and every facet of the team has gotten involved — a blocked field goal-turned-touchdown return against Duke, a third-down drop against Louisiana, and so on.

You could even question coaching strategy when FIU, leading Arkansas State 10-7 with 1:34 left in the half and facing a third-and-13 from its own 8, decided to let freshman E.J. Hilliard fling it.

Arkansas State linebacker Sterling Young snagged an interception that he returned to the FIU 7. Arkansas State scored to lead 14-10 at the half and on its first possession of the second half to take a 21-10 lead.

“That helped us assume the momentum,” Young said.

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