FIU welcomes Florida Atlantic to Miami on Thursday for Shula Bowl XIII. Both teams are flying high after winning their conference openers last weekend. FAU currently enjoys a comfortable 9-3 record against FIU, but the Panthers have won 2 of the last 3 Shula Bowls. This rivalry will not only secure bragging for one south Florida team on the recruiting trail, but it could also be a springboard into the the second half of the season. A 2-0 record in conference play isn't too shabby either. With that said, let's take a quick look at how both teams can win this year's Shula Bowl.
Five games into the season and the Panthers have already caused 17 turnovers. Three of those have been interceptions returned for touchdowns and Richard Leonard is behind two of them. After missing all of last season, Leonard has reemerged as a constant turnover threat. While FAU's Jaquez Johnson has yet to throw an interception this season, one thing the Owls have done is put the ball on the ground. Florida Atlantic has already surrendered four fumbles this season and with FIU's high turnover margin (+10), the Panthers should try to strip the ball any chance they get.
Utilize The Run
FIU has finally put their confidence in a true freshman to play quarterback, so why not do the same at running back? Alex Gardner leads the team with 313 rushing yards, but has only received 64 carries all season. FAU enters Thursday's game having already let up over 1000 yards on the ground. An emphasis on the running game will be absolutely vital to FIU's success and the Panthers can't afford to not attack Florida Atlantic's weak run defense. Whether it's Gardner or Anthon Samuel, someone has to run the ball at the Owls.
Let The Defense Breathe
This key to the game should go mano y mano with establishing a running attack. The more rest the defense has, the more explosive they will be when they're finally called upon. This also means Alex McGough will have to continue to connect with Jonnu Smith and Glenn Coleman, the team's two leading receivers. Smart decisions by the true freshman will lead to longer drives for the Panthers. If FIU can hold onto the ball, keep those drives alive and improve on their third-down conversion rate (21.8%), they should be able to pull off the home upset and move the Shula Bowl trophy back to Miami.
Who knew this FAU team would love to throw the deep ball so much? Jaquez Johnson has finally answered the call and improved upon his passing for the Owls. Assisting Johnson on these big plays are veteran receivers William Dukes and Jenson Stoshak. It took the duo a few games to get it going, but it appears that both pass-catchers are well on their way to posting big numbers once again. While FAU has definitely utilized the pass over the top, their underneath routes have been executed explosively by Lucky Whitehead. He gives FIU's Richard Leonard competition for the most dynamic player on the field, but expect the Owls to find Lucky early and often for a big performance.
Get To The Freshmen
Oh, fresh meat. FIU will be starting a few impact freshmen in their first Shula Bowl contest on Thursday and it will be up to Brandin Bryant, Andrae Kirk, and Damian Parms to welcome them to Florida's youngest rivalry. If Bryant can apply pressure to Alex McGough in a similar way that he did against UTSA, expect a lot of rushed throws and check-downs. Should McGough choose to hand it off to Alex Gardner, look for Kirk to plug up the middle of the field. Between Parms, D'Joun Smith and Christian Milstead, the secondary will be ready to make plays everytime the ball goes in the air. This defense may not have the numbers to back it up just yet, but they've shown that they can do some damage to an unproven offense.
Control The Game
FAU has only seen success this year when they are controlling the tempo of the game. Whether it is in the no-huddle hurry-up offense or the hurry-up and wait approach we've seen against UTSA and Wyoming, Florida Atlantic likes to move to their own beat. The Owls will need to switch up their looks if they want to move the game against an FIU defense that is 23rd in the nation in total defense. As hard as it is to believe, the Panthers are a legitimate force that will try and turn the ball over any chance they get. If they can hold on to the game, they should control the flow of the game and if they can control the tempo, they should remain Shula Bowl champions.