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2023 Week 13 Game Preview: Florida Atlantic Owls @ Rice Owls

In the battle of the Owls, WHO will end their first AAC regular season on a higher note?

NCAA Football: Tulane at Rice Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, November 25 at 1:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN+
  • Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
  • Spread: Rice (-5)
  • Over/under: 48.5
  • All-time series: Series tied, 2-2
  • Last meeting: Florida Atlantic 17, Rice 14 — October 15, 2022
  • Current streak: Florida Atlantic, 2 (2016-22)

Setting the scene

An owl infestation is expected to arise in Houston, TX on Saturday.

The Florida Atlantic Owls and Rice Owls converge at Rice Stadium for the regular season finale as the two former CUSA opponents meet for the first time as AAC teams. The stakes are varying for both teams involved.

Florida Atlantic (4-7, 3-4 AAC) is eliminated from bowl eligibility for the third consecutive season and this will be its final contest of 2023. Head coach Tom Herman concludes his first year at the helm Saturday, hoping to send his seniors off on a high note.

Rice (5-6, 3-4 AAC) can clinch bowl eligibility for the second consecutive year, but unlike last year, the Owls can do so with six wins. Rice hasn’t registered six wins since 2014, and this is the first time the program can attain this in the six year of the Mike Bloomgren era.


Florida Atlantic Owls outlook

Florida Atlantic wraps up its season Saturday afternoon in Houston. In their first year of AAC membership, the Owls looked like one of the stronger teams in the conference until the midseason point. They knocked off incumbent AAC members Tulsa and South Florida by a combined score of 76-31 to start 2-0 in league play, but they’ve since dropped four of their last five, falling to the likes of UAB and East Carolina to deny themselves of bowl eligibility.

It’s not the season Florida Atlantic envisioned under first-year head coach Tom Herman, but the Owls can still rectify what’s left and win their first finale since 2019. In order to do that, Florida Atlantic needs a significant boost from an offense which totaled just 15 points in the prior two weeks.

What caused these lackluster performances on the offensive side? It’s primarily been the inability to establish any semblance of a run game. FAU tallied 21 rushing yards on 31 attempts against East Carolina and 32 on 30 attempts against Tulane, averaging fewer than 0.9 yards per carry over that two-game span.

Larry McCammon remains the headliner of the run game. The 1,000-yard back from 2022 is up to 675 yards on the year and he’s often the difference in winning and losing. In wins, McCammon averages 99.3 yards, while that number dips to 46.3 in losses.

Florida Atlantic is 112th nationally in rushing and 69th in passing, so the Owls will rely on quarterback Daniel Richardson for the majority of production. Richardson is often a high-risk, high-reward passer and the 5’10”, 205 pound Central Michigan comes equipped with a cannon of an arm. Avoiding mistakes will be crucial for Richardson though as he has thrown a pick in each of his last nine games. But he’s shown flashes of excellence in his eight starts with a trio of 3-touchdown showings. In order for another showing like that to come to fruition, the offensive line must do a better job of support, considering Richardson absorbed four or more sacks in four of his last five games.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 21 UTSA at Florida Atlantic
FAU QB Daniel Richardson led Central Michigan to a 9-4 season and Sun Bowl victory of Washington State at his prior stop.
Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Owls pass an average of 34.4 times per game across Richardson’s eight starts and feeding the talented LaJohntay Wester the ball is one reason for that high output. Wester is the only FBS player with at least 100 catches on the year, and he’s turned his nation-leading 104 receptions into 1,128 yards (ninth in FBS) and 13 touchdowns (tied for second in FBS). FAU’s offense revolves around dishing the ball to the playmaker who operates well in space. Wester is a very common target on screens with his shiftiness, but his speed makes him an occasional deep threat as well.

Although the offense stalled lately, the Owls are doing plenty of good too. They’re playing an extremely disciplined brand of football in the month of November, committing a collective five penalties across their last three games.

The defense has done a standup job stifling the run, holding East Carolina to 2.1 yards per carry and Tulane to 2.6 — becoming the only AAC team to hold the conference’s leading rusher Makhi Hughes under 100 this season. FAU exhibits an incredibly stout front which limits opponents to 3.6 yards per rush, captained by defensive tackle Evan Anderson. The 6’3”, 356 pound lineman is a disruptive force for opposing centers and guards, posting 3.5 sacks and 5.0 tackles for loss as the Owls’ fifth-leading tackler.

Outside linebacker Jaylen Wester is among the premier run stoppers on this squad with 7.5 tackles for loss on the year with five in his last three outings. The Owls’ passing defense ranked 112th in the country doesn’t hold exactly as firm as the run defense, but the secondary presents a dangerous weapon in Jarron Morris. The strong safety is the polymath of the defense with team-highs in tackles (75), interceptions (3), pass breakups (5), and forced fumbles (2), and he’s another tremendous run stopper with 6.5 tackles for loss from the defensive backfield.


Rice Owls outlook

Rice is on the verge of a coveted 6-win threshold for the first time since 2014. The Owls need to deliver a victory on senior day in order to clinch a bowl, and this a moment many longtime seniors envisioned for years. Rice will honor a batch of outgoing seniors Saturday including three six-year players who were members of Mike Bloomgren’s first recruiting class — left tackle Clay Servin and running backs Juma Otoviano and Ari Broussard.

Rice was in a similar position last year, sporting a 5-6 record heading into Week 13, but the Owls were banged up and far from their best football toward the tail-end of 2022. This year, Rice enters this critical matchup fresh off a dominant 28-7 win over Charlotte where the Owls nearly pitched a shutout on the road despite losing the turnover battle 3-1.

However, Rice might be without one crucial piece for this game against Florida Atlantic. Starting quarterback JT Daniels — who will be part of the pregame senior day ceremony — missed the prior two contests in concussion protocol. Bloomgren did not provide a definitive update on Daniels’ status for Saturday, so Rice might need to rely on AJ Padgett if Daniels is not cleared to play. Additionally, the Owls might incorporate true freshman quarterback Chase Jenkins — the most dynamic runner of the quarterbacks — into some packages on Saturday to mix things up for the offense.

The Owls were a pass-happy teams with Daniels in the lineup, but their strategy has shifted in his absence. Padgett has been somewhat efficient with a 62.7 completion percentage in three games this year, but Rice leans increasingly more on the running game when Padgett plays. Dean Connors took care of business for the unit last week, attaining a career-high 184 yards on 19 carries for his second 100-yard masterpiece of the year. Connors’ success will significantly dictate how Rice performs offensively in this one, and the Owls highest scoring outputs often coincide with his best games.

Rice Football
Rice RB Dean Connors is fresh off a 184-yard outburst on 19 carries against Charlotte.
Jason Fochtman/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

The other skill position player crucial to offensive success is wide receiver Luke McCaffrey. The likely future NFL talent is fresh off a 5-reception, 54-yard performance, and he made several critical receptions to put the Charlotte game away. McCaffrey is tied for seventh nationally with 11 touchdowns on the year, and many of his touchdowns have been incredible highlight-reel contested catches. He is sixth in the AAC with 822 receiving yards and enters Saturday on a 6-game touchdown streak. Outside of McCaffrey, other players Rice heavily involves in the receiving game include Connors, tight end Boden Groen, and 6’5” boundary receiver Rawson MacNeill.

On defense, Rice is fresh off its most promising game of the season. The Owls were probably a fourth quarter interception away from shutting out Charlotte, and they forced four three-and-outs in the decisive victory. Charlotte ran the ball extraordinarily well on Memphis the week prior, but Rice limited the 49ers to 2.7 yards per carry, and yet, the Owls were even better at suffocating the aerial attack.

With star free safety Gabe Taylor back in the lineup, Rice stuffed Charlotte to 74 passing yards on an 11-of-25 showing. Taylor tied for the team-high with seven tackles and he’ll play a significant role in defending Florida Atlantic, showcasing a season stat-line of 55 tackles, two interceptions, and seven pass breakups. Cornerback Sean Fresch, who also has seven deflections on the year, will also have his work cut out for him as the likely counter to LaJohntay Wester.

Establishing a stronger pass rush is essential for Rice in this contest. The Owls trended in the right direction with two sacks against Charlotte, but they only produce 1.7 per game. Coleman Coco and Josh Pearcy are the main pressure generators from the edge, while De’Braylon Carroll draws most of the attention in the middle. These three won’t only be charged with getting to Daniel Richardson, but they’ll also serve as the difference in whether Florida Atlantic sheds its woes in the run game or not.


Prediction

Rice may or may not have the luxury of JT Daniels for this bowl eligibility-clinching game, but Rice definitely exhibits a defense capable of making Florida Atlantic’s offense one-dimensional again — just like East Carolina and Tulane did. Rice returned plenty of key defenders from injuries in recent weeks like Josh Pearcy, Gabe Taylor, and Jonathan Jean, and the result was the dominant product on the field in Charlotte.

Florida Atlantic hasn’t generated much from the run game recently, so the Owls will rely heavily on the Daniel Richardson and LaJohntay Wester combination to fuel the offense. But the difference maker in this game will be Rice’s passing offense. Whether it’s Daniels or AJ Padgett, Rice needs to exert its considerable advantage on the Florida Atlantic passing defense. Avoiding sacks and incorporating Dean Connors as a short-yardage screen threat and Luke McCaffrey as a downfield option should be enough to hand Rice six wins for the first time in nine years.

Prediction: Rice 21, Florida Atlantic 16