HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - When Bill Legg and Alex Mirabal return to FIU Stadium on Saturday, they'll spend about one minute on sentimentality and then go to work coaching their Marshall team.That's what coaches do. They preach to their players about blocking out distractions, so they had better do it themselves. That is easier and tougher - easier because they can bury themselves in their work, and tougher because they're never sure where they're working next year. Or their bosses and best friends in the business, for that matter.Mirabal learned that the hard way in December 2012. He was shown the door after Florida International, his alma mater, fired head coach Mario Cristobal.Cristobal and his staff took the Panthers from a 23-game losing streak to a tie for the Sun Belt championship in 2010 and a win over Toledo in the bowl game in Detroit, followed by a program-best 8-5 record in 2011 and a loss to Marshall in the bowl game at St. Petersburg, Fla.
The 3-9 record in 2012 seemed to be a hiccup, but FIU executive director of sports and entertainment Pete Garcia fired Cristobal."He's done a very good job for this program, but we've gone backwards over the last year and a half. Over the last 22 games, we've gone 8-14," Garcia said at the time.Legg was Cristobal's offensive coordinator in 2008-09 before returning to Marshall under new coach Doc Holliday. The reasons were simple: a return to the Mountain State, a chance to work with Holliday, a step from the Sun Belt to Conference USA.Both Legg and Mirabal have had strong reactions over FIU's ouster of Cristobal, now the offensive line coach at Alabama. Mirabal was more emotionally invested, as he worked all six years under Cristobal and each served as best man at the other's wedding."When stuff like that happens, it was personal to me. Someone's telling you you're a failure," Mirabal said in April, during his first spring season at Marshall. "There's a big chip on my shoulder, I know, to go out in a place that we're in right now and have a tremendous amount of success, to basically stick it to them."He moderated his stance a bit this week, telling the Miami Herald the game had no special meaning because he doesn't know coach Ron Turner or his staff.
Whatever the case, Mirabal will return to Miami for the Thundering Herd's contest with the Panthers. Kickoff is at 6 p.m., with the game airing on Fox College Sports Central.Mirabal was surprised by Cristobal's firing, for certain. How surprised was Legg, who had just finished his third season as Marshall's offensive coordinator?"That's a bad question to ask me because of my personal feelings where Mario Cristobal is concerned," Legg said. "He's as good of a guy as there is in this business, he's a heck of a football coach, does a great job in recruiting. I love the guy."Anytime you have those types of personal feelings for someone, you don't think anything wrong should ever happen to him. But on the flip side, that's this business. We've all been through it. If we've coached at any length at all, we've all gone through something they went through a year ago."I've been though it twice, because a head coach retired and they brought in a new head coach [West Virginia, Purdue], and the new head coach wanted his people and didn't want me. That's part of this profession."
When Marshall lost offensive line coach Geep Wade to Middle Tennessee, Holliday moved quickly to contact Mirabal, certainly with Legg's full support. Mirabal went to work right away at recruiting south Florida, even before he was officially named as a Marshall assistant.By many accounts, Mirabal's offensive line has blossomed, even surviving the loss of two regulars."I'm happy for Mario that he's at Alabama, but what I'm really happy [about] is that little guy over there [points to the diminutive Mirabal] is here with me," Legg said.nn
And for any number of reasons, the FIU line is not doing so well. The basic numbers are grisly - 2.1 yards per rush, 37 sacks yielded.That doesn't help any other offensive number, especially the scoreboard, where the Panthers have been blanked three times and barely average 10 points per game.
Heavy losses from last year have taken a toll, on the O-line and everywhere else. The Panthers lost 21 starters from a year ago (10 offense, eight defense, three specialists). Two true freshmen, left guard Jordan Budwig and tight end Jonnu Smith, have started all 10 games.Smith and his fellow tight ends stand out to Marshall coaches, and they are a bright spot in an otherwise poor passing attack. Smith leads the team with 31 catches for 298 yards and two touchdowns."They play multiple tight ends in ways people don't typically use them," said MU defensive coordinator Chuck Heater. "Those guys are functioning well. They struggle to have consistent wide receiver play and consistent quarterback play, so those are things they're trying to get a handle on."nn
Defensively, FIU is more respectable, even after yielding 327 rushing yards last week at Texas-El Paso. The Panthers are 12th in C-USA in passer rating defense but a few spots higher in other categories.The two defensive tackles, 6-foot-2, 280-pound Greg Hickman and 6-5, 300-pound Isame Faciane, have a combined 20 tackles for loss and 4.5 of the team's 12 sacks. Middle linebacker Markeith Russell easily leads the team with 82 tackles, 55 unassisted.The problem? With little depth, they play too many snaps. Hickman has been playing on a bad ankle since the third game, and he has had to move outside and back inside.Legg also singled out cornerbacks Sam Miller and Randy Harvey as standouts. Miller is tied for the team lead with two interceptions, though he has yielded the job to true freshman Wilkenson Myrtil.Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.