- Time and date: Saturday, October 21 at 6:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: FAU Stadium — Boca Raton, FL
- Spread: UTSA (-3)
- Over/under: 59.5
- All-time series: Florida Atlantic leads, 3-0
- Last meeting: Florida Atlantic 20, UTSA 3 — October 31, 2020
- Current streak: Florida Atlantic, 3 (2014-20)
Setting the scene
An old Conference USA matchup transitions into a new league.
Among the six teams that moved from the CUSA to the AAC this offseason, UTSA and Florida Atlantic are the top dogs. Both the Roadrunners and Owls recovered from 1-3 non-conference starts with 2-0 AAC records.
UTSA returned quarterback Frank Harris to start conference play, taking down Temple and UAB in consecutive weeks to get back on track. Meanwhile, Florida Atlantic lost starting quarterback Casey Thompson to an ACL injury, but Daniel Richardson provided the Owls victories over Tulsa and North Texas to revert to .500 on the season.
The victor Saturday night in Boca Raton improves to 3-0 in the conference standings, throwing itself into the list of contenders along with the likes of Tulane, SMU, and Memphis.
UTSA Roadrunners outlook
The Roadrunners are rollin’, just like the prognosticators expected when ranking UTSA second in the preseason AAC play. UTSA remains unscathed against conference opponents after flying past Temple, 49-34, before returning home to punish UAB, 41-20.
After a rough offensive start averaging under 20 points per game in non-conference play, UTSA has clicked into a new gear on that side of the ball. The return of reigning CUSA MVP Frank Harris at quarterback unquestionably plays a huge factor into the resurgence, as Harris is averaging 255 passing yards per game on a 70 percent clip since returning. Best of all, he’s playing mistake-free football, delivering five touchdowns without an interception against conference opponents in 2023.
Harris’ mobility is more limited than last year due to several reasons. The turf toe injury suffered Week 2 vs. Texas State is one factor, but the star quarterback also endured several offseason surgeries on his left knee. He still fights for those extra yards when needed, breaking off for a double-digit run each game, but the running backs are carrying the bulk of the ground attack for now. Kevorian Barnes operates as the main workhorse back, utilizing his power to keep the sticks moving. Robert Henry serves as the perfect foil as the explosive secondary back. Last week, Henry reset his career-high with 99 yards against UAB, showing off his speed and hurdling ability to boost his season average to 7.1 yards per carry.
Although UTSA expected De’Corian Clark to be a focal point of the receiving game this year, it appears the program’s fourth all-time leading receiver isn’t destined to return from his 2022 ACL injury — wearing street clothes during warm-ups last weekend after previously suiting up in uniform. However, UTSA still exhibits a talented corps in Clark’s absence. Joshua Cephus took the No. 1 spot in UTSA career receptions last Saturday, and he’s a frequent option on designed screens. The home run shots are usually reserved for Tykee Ogle-Kellogg and Devin McCuin, who collectively average 15.8 yards per reception this year.
While UTSA is thriving offensively with 90 points across two games, the most impactful player in this matchup resides on the Roadrunner defense. Outside linebacker Trey Moore leads the AAC with 7.5 sacks on the year and he unquestionably won the conference’s Defensive Player of the Week honors with 3.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and fumble recovery against UAB. Moore is three sacks away from tying the program single season record, and Florida Atlantic’s typically-stout o-line must be prepared for his quick spin moves.
Moore spurred the turnover effort with a strip-sack on the first drive last Saturday, and now, turnovers are benefiting UTSA rather than causing harm. The Roadrunners generated just one takeaway in their first four games, but they scooped up two fumble recoveries against Temple and won the turnover battle 3-0 against UAB with two interceptions and Moore’s fumble recovery. By gathering a litany of takeaways and shutting the Blazers out in the final 24 minutes of clock, last Saturday was UTSA’s most complete game of the year — both defensively and offensively.
Now the Roadrunners hope to sustain that on the road against an improving Florida Atlantic squad.
Florida Atlantic Owls outlook
Not many teams changed their trajectory from September to October like the Owls. Tom Herman has Florida Atlantic situated in contention status in the early stages of AAC play, fielding a 2-0 record with wins over legacy AAC programs.
Defeating Tulsa 20-17 in a monsoon was a sign of progress, but boatracing South Florida 56-14 at Raymond James Stadium was the first signature moment of the Herman era at Florida Atlantic. Everything went right for the Owls in a 42-point evisceration — pitted against the same South Florida team which stifled Alabama’s offense to 17 points.
Offensively, quarterback Daniel Richardson finally got in a rhythm. The Central Michigan transfer completed 31-of-38 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns, displaying efficiency and explosiveness to lead the Owls to their highest-scoring game since Oct. 2, 2021. Defensively, the Owls dominated the line of scrimmage. They produced six sacks and forced South Florida into a bevy of third-and-long situations. The result was three conversions on 15 attempts, and the Bulls succumbed three additional times on fourth down.
The question is, can Florida Atlantic sustain that performance against a UTSA team similarly on a midseason surge?
A lot hinges on Richardson in the passing game. After starter Casey Thompson tore his ACL in Week 3 against Clemson, the Owls were fortunate to have a veteran quarterback who previously led Central Michigan to a 9-4 season and Sun Bowl win over Washington State in 2019. Richardson’s poise is showing and he is completing passes at a career-high rate of 65.1 percent. That is especially impressive considering the 5’10”, 205 pound quarterback is equipped with a cannon mark and frequently takes higher-risk deep shots.
Florida Atlantic’s passing offense benefits from the presence of LaJohntay Wester, who leads the entire FBS in receptions with 62. Wester is targeted often on screens and he’s a magician in space, accumulating an AAC-high 622 yards in his third-straight 60+ reception season. He played an overwhelming No. 1 role in the receiving game all year, but the Owls finally saw another member step up last week. Tony Johnson broke out with 131 yards on eight receptions, adding much-needed firepower to the Owls’ 59th ranked passing offense.
Typically, this offense shows off plenty of balance. The run game isn’t one of the more explosive units in the AAC but the tandem of Larry McCammon III and Kobe Lewis produces respectable out of the backfield. Both backs attained 70 rushing yards in the prior week as FAU totaled 205 as a team, complemented by four touchdowns.
Defensively, Florida Atlantic showcased its capabilities last week in Tampa. The front played out of its mind, presenting heaps of pressure in a 6-sack, 12-tackles for loss performance. The Owls are one of the better backfield invading teams in the country with 6.7 stops behind the line of scrimmage per game — 28th in the FBS.
Defensive end Marlon Bradley and outside linebacker Jackson Ambush are two of the top contributors in that area with 7.5 combined TFLs on the season. On the back end, free safety Jarron Morris provides as much of a threat as any FAU defensive back. He ranks first on the team with two interceptions and four pass breakups this year, in addition to collecting the second-most tackles of all Owls.
UTSA and Florida Atlantic are both remarkably different teams than they were coming out of non-conference play. The offenses are highly in-sync at the moment, featuring healthy run-pass splits with commendable production in each facet. The quarterback matchup of Frank Harris and Daniel Richardson should be a fun one, as both gunslingers recently showed off their abilities with efficient 300-yard performances.
Defensively, both teams are generating plenty of pressure in AAC play — fresh off 6-sack outings. Trey Moore will be the most dangerous player in the game. Florida Atlantic’s offensive line usually does a stellar job in keeping its quarterback upright, but Moore commands significant attention and could alter some blocking schemes. Additionally, UTSA bottles up the run to a greater extent, and that difference should propel the Roadrunners to a narrow victory in Paradise on Saturday.
Prediction: UTSA 38, Florida Atlantic 31