It’s no accident that FIU’s two winning seasons, 2011 and 2010, also rank Nos.1 and 2 on the list of turnovers forced in a season since the Panthers went to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
This year’s model is on track to match those years.
The six turnovers Saturday against Alabama-Birmingham gives FIU 17 after five games. The 2011 team, which ended the season on an interception streak, garnered 35. The 2010 team forced 34.
The seven interceptions so far this season put FIU close to the pace of the 15 by the 2010 and 2008 teams. The two interception returns for touchdowns push this year’s total to three, second most in FIU’s FBS era behind four in 2005 (all of which were in a 52-6 win against FAU that was vacated because of NCAA sanctions).
FIU could have had more turnovers Saturday. Junior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon made a one-armed robbery of a long pass but got called for pass interference, even though his right arm was being held by the UAB receiver. An offside call negated a Justin Halley interception.
Then again, sometimes karma happens. After the McKinnon call, cornerback Richard Leonard led a stuffing of UAB for no gain on a fourth-and-2. The drive that continued after the Halley interception ended with Wilkinson Myrtil’s end-zone interception.
Leonard worried UAB coach Bill Clark because of his kickoff-return abilities, although Clark did made sure to note that FIU was third in the nation as a team on kickoff returns.
Leonard didn’t return a single kickoff. Glenn Coleman ran back two for 54 yards, including a 36-yarder that was exactly what Clark described earlier in the week — running out from deep in the end zone and still getting good field position.
In pursuit of more offensive big plays, FIU used Leonard on offense in the second quarter. He ran a sweep for 5 yards. Leonard’s last offensive plays were at Killian High where, he said, he ran the Wildcat scheme.
Fourth-down trickery didn’t go well for UAB. Twice, UAB lined up on fourth-and-1 in an attempt to sucker FIU into jumping offsides. Both times, the Blazers wound up with false-start penalties instead.
Down 34-13 in the fourth quarter, with fourth-and-7 on their own 48, the Blazers sent out the punt team to boos from the home side of Legion Field. But off the snap, Nolen Smith began sweeping to the right side. Suddenly, he stopped and lobbed a pass back to Tris Henderson, who had an escort and a lot of air between him and the end zone.
Henderson dropped the ball.
THIS AND THAT
▪ FIU’s Allegiant Air charter flight on Friday didn’t leave until after 9p.m., several hours late, when mechanical issues eventually took the plane out of service. The players were bused to Dolphin Mall for dinner. They arrived in Birmingham just after 11 p.m. Luckily for them, Saturday’s game didn’t kick off until 3:30 p.m.
“It was just a couple of setbacks,” quarterback Alex McGough said. “We stayed focused throughout the whole thing. Give credit to everyone. Just to stay focused was great mental toughness on everyone’s side.”
▪ McGough needed to stay focused through a rough start Saturday. He said his first-half problems were because he was throwing the ball too hard in an effort to try to force passes. He said coach Ron Turner told him to settle down and throw a catchable ball. Saturday was the first game in which FIU didn’t play both McGough and junior E.J. Hilliard.