SIRC Down to the Wire as FIU Beats MTSU
SIRC Down to the Wire as FIU Beats MTSU
Florida International continued the team’s unbeaten run by sweeping Georgia Southern and Middle Tennessee State in the SIRC final four this past weekend, but it wasn’t easy.
And perhaps that was the key victory for FIU as they had not had much trouble throughout the SIRC South season, winning games by an average of 32 points. And it looked to be the same in the semis, as FIU beat Georgia Southern 55-14. Meanwhile, SIRC North winners MTSU beat Central Florida 30-7 to set up the final.
“Our main goal in the semis was to stay as healthy as we could,” said captain and flyhalf Mateo Velazquez. “We took out guys who had niggling injuries, and started their recovery early. And once we got the lead we tried to eat up as much time as we could.”
It was a smart move.
The finals as as close as everyone expected. FIU scored in the 17th minute, exploiting a couple of MTSU penalties, and finally seeing Kevin Flefel over. Captain and flyhalf Mateo Velazquez converted for a 7-0 lead.
But after that, MTSU dominated possession, and forced FIU to defend. This they did, incurring plenty of penalties along the way.
“We were down a man for a good part of the game, and we were down to 13 players for almost ten minutes in the first half,” said Velazquez. “We were defending that whole time and it felt like much longer.”
MTSU kept bashing at the FIU line, but they didn’t play with enough imagination despite the man advantage.
“We saw their forwards were gassed by the end of the first half in the game on Saturday,” said MTSU Head Coach Jody Hensley. “So we wanted to target their forwards, but use that to get it out wide. I think close-in we didn’t play smart.”
Too many players were thinking pick-and-go and not enough were thinking pass it, or at least get a shoulder in to drive the ballcarrier over. Instead, MTSU entered halftime still down 7-0.
More of the same in the second half. FIU was penalized repeatedly and finally a wide pass put fullback Coty Baker over for a try to make it 7-5. But from the restart they gave points back, as MTSU was penalized and Velazquez kicked the penalty to make it 10-5 FIU.
Then, midway through the second half, MTSU was once again on the FIU line. They likely should have been awarded a penalty try when FIU collapsed the scrum under the posts. But while the Golden Panthers escaped that problem, moments after that MTSU went over under the posts and kicked the conversion for a 12-10 lead.
Still, Hensley said his team missed opportunities.
“We had some chances to kick at goal early and missed, and maybe we lost confidence in that,” said Hensley. “Our guys started to feel this urgency that maybe we didn’t need to feel. We wanted that try, and we knocked the ball on and really just didn’t take advantage of all of that possession.”
Meanwhile, Velazquez was also urging his team not to rush it.
“I must have yelled ‘patience’ 100 times,” he said. “We needed to just relax and get back onside. We didn’t need to try to poach the ball every time. I told the guys, we’d get the ball back. But when we did, we’d lose it almost immediately because we were rushing things. We were frustrated.”
Then late in the game, MTSU was under some pressure and set up a clearance kick. The MTSU kicker, carrying an injury, lined up a little close and Velazquez burst onto the ball, charged down the kick, gathered the bounce, and raced in to score. He converted the kick, as well, to make it 17-12.
“Scoring that try felt amazing,” said Velazquez. “I couldn’t believe it, the way the ball bounced up. I thought I was dreaming. But we won because of a total team effort. I am proud of the try, but I am more proud of how we got through ten minutes down two guys and not giving up any points.”
Hensley, meanwhile, was philosophical.
“FIU is a great team and they played really well,” he said. “We might have felt like we should have won, but they did a great job and are really good players.”
See the full game footage here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcJ4_IcMfRM