FIU Panthers (5-4, 3-3 C-USA) vs Florida Atlantic Owls (6-3, 4-1 C-USA)
Date/Time: Saturday, November, 9th, 6:00 PM
TV: Stadium (Play-By-Play: Noah Coslov/Analyst: Max Starks/Sidelines: Amina Smith)
Radio: WAXY 790 The Ticket Miami (Play-By-Play: A.J. Ricketts/Analyst: Kenny Kelly)/WMEN 640 AM The Hurricane Palm Beach (Play-by-Play: Ken LaVicka/ Analyst: Kris Bartels)
Location: FAU Stadium, Boca Raton, FL
Betting Line: FAU -10.5 O/U 59.5
All-Time Series Record: Florida Atlantic leads 12-4 (FAU won last matchup 49-14 in 2018)
In the Panthers’ 24-17 victory over Old Dominion last weekend, there are two major takeaways heading into Saturday’s rivalry game against Florida Atlantic - injuries are starting to take its toll on FIU and the team’s secondary will give them a chance to win in almost any contest.
Starting with the banged-up players for FIU, receiver/returner Maurice Alexander was injured late in the fourth quarter of the ODU game. He announced on Twitter earlier in the week that he would miss the remainder of the season. The injury hurts the Panthers in both the return game and on offense, as Alexander is arguably C-USA’s most dangerous special teams’ player and is FIU’s Swiss Army knife as an offensive weapon.
On the offensive line, starting center Shane McGough was a late scratch with an undisclosed injury, forcing Dallas Connell from guard to center. Then, starting right tackle Devontay Taylor exited with a lower-body injury. His replacement, Lyndell Hudson Jr. had to be helped off the field in the fourth quarter. That caused starting guard Shacquille Williams to have to play right tackle - a position he hadn’t practiced or played at.
“Huge credit to Shaq Williams, he played the last three possessions at right tackle, he hasn’t played a snap at that position in three years,” said Butch Davis postgame.
As for the secondary, for FIU to upset their rivals to the north, it’s going to take the efforts of the seventh-ranked pass defense in FBS football, allowing just 165 yards per game through the air. They’ll have their hands full with the conference’s fourth-ranked passing attack, as Florida Atlantic averages just under 280 yards passing in nine contests.
Where FIU has to get their offense going is the passing game - which has suffered somewhat as a byproduct of the inconsistency of the O-Line. Quarterback James Morgan - when given time, can be one of the most deadly passers in C-USA. However, he’s spent a majority of the season under duress, in addition to playing through an early knee injury.
FAU’s pass defense has been susceptible to allowing chunks of yards, as they sit last in the conference (261.6) in passing yards allowed per game.
Entering the season I thought the Shula Bowl would be a matchup of two teams battling for first place in C-USA East. While the Panthers have woefully fallen short of those expectations, the Owls have held their end of the bargain as they are tied for first place with Marshall.
Much of FAU’s success in conference play has been tied to winning the turnover battle. In three wins, FAU won the turnover margin. In the loss to the Herd, FAU failed to win the turnover battle. FAU has a conference-best 11 interceptions during conference play. James Pierre, Zyon Gilbert and Meiko Dotson have 8 of those INTs. Without question, the strength of the defense rests with the secondary.
Seeing as how the secondary is so good, you would think it would be a by-product of a great pass rush but that’s not the case here. FAU is tied for last with 5 sacks during conference play. This is good news for FIU’s makeshift offensive line as Tim Bonner, Leighton McCarthy and Ray Ellis have not been great when it comes to forcing pressure this season.
Of course, if FIU can make way on the ground then they won’t need to pass all that much. The Owls are allowing 112.8 yards per game during conference play. While that’s terrific, I still can see Marshall’s Brenden Knox running through FAU’s defense. FIU’s RBs are just as capable of producing a big day on the ground.
The biggest advantage of the game should be with FAU. FIU’s run defense is the worst in conference play as they are allowing 209.5 yards per game. FAU is averaging 168.8 yards per game on the ground. The game plan should be simple this week: Get Larry McCammon III and Malcolm Davidson involved and allow Chris Robison to attack FIU’s secondary off of play action.
3 Keys to Victory
Offensive Line Play: There’s no denying that FIU has talented players across its O-Line. However, that hasn’t manifested itself into consistent play this season. While they rank third in C-USA in fewest sacks allowed (13), Morgan has been pressured all season. Players like Akileis Leroy and Rashad Smith are more than capable of rushing the passer.
Harrison Bryant: The senior tight end is one of the best in the nation at his position and is a virtual lock to be playing on Sundays. While FIU’s secondary is extremely capable, Bryant will present a size matchup nightmare for players like safety Olin Cushion and DB’s Richard and Rishard Dames.
Captain Morgan/Special Teams: If the aforementioned offensive line play holds, James Morgan is more than capable of going on a hot streak and picking apart the FAU secondary. See last year’s MTSU game for evidence. The Panthers’ special teams have to be consistent. Kicker Jose Borregales must hit on makeable field goals and punter Tommy Heatherly can’t have the occasional shank that’s blemished an otherwise outstanding year.
Play loose but maintain emotions: FAU is the most penalized team in C-USA. Shocker, right? Emotions are always high in the Shula Bowl so I expect FIU to come out with a ton of energy. The Owls can’t be tricked into getting 15-yard penalties. They are the better team and have more to lose. Effort penalties are fine, but anything of the personal foul variety can not be tolerated.
Win the turnover battle: I can not stress this enough. FAU has been excellent at forcing turnovers this year as they are 7th in the country in turnover margin with +11. The team really feeds off of the defense’s energy. If they can force Morgan into a few turnovers early in the game, they will be in good shape to blow this game open in the second half. FIU is 49th in the country in TO margin as they are +2. Whoever wins the turnover battle will win the game.
Which special teams unit is more good/bad: FIU and FAU are both good at punting the ball, and both are suspect at kicking the ball. If the game comes down to a kicker, I don’t think anyone would feel comfortable. If the game comes down to field position, I think both head coaches feel great that they can win that battle.
Eric: Last year’s Shula Bowl game was supposed to be the coronation for FIU’s 2018 season. The Panthers entered as division leaders, while Florida Atlantic was just hoping to keep their bowl hopes alive. What ensued was a 35-point win for the underdog Owls. This year, the roles are reversed. Anything can happen, but I see FAU pulling away in the late stages of a tightly-contested game.
Final Score: FAU 31, FIU 21
Cyrus: FAU has owned this rivalry, especially at home. The last time FIU beat FAU on the road Mario Cristobal was their head coach and the Owls were calling Lockhart Stadium home. Lane Kiffin is 2-0 against Butch Davis too. With that said I think FIU comes out playing on fire to start the game. It’ll be on FAU to maintain their composure during that surge and settle in so their talent can overwhelm the Panthers in the long run. Vegas thinks FAU will win by double digits and I agree. FIU’s run defense is simply not good. FAU’s RBs should have one of their better games of the season
Final Score: FAU 38 FIU 27