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WKU at FAU: Keys to the Game

The Florida Atlantic University Owls (2-4) will host the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky (2-3) on Saturday (12:00pm ET).

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

FAU (by Steven Gonzalez)

Well, here we are. Seventh game of the season and I have no idea what the second half will bring. FAU has typically started their seasons off slowly and I can imagine coach Partridge is trying to conjure up the same magic that led the Owls to four straight victories at the end of last year. Unfortunately, the FAU defense is trending in the opposite direction from last year’s unit. Facing off against a high-powered WKU attack with similar defensive concerns should bode well for an exciting matchup, but I’m curious to see how the Owls respond knowing that they cannot afford to lose many more games.

1.) Ball Security - This is a fairly simple concept that the Owls can’t seem to hold on to (pun intended). The main culprit has been sophomore running back Jay Warren. With two red zone fumbles against FIU, the coaching staff appears ready to retest their initial running back by committee approach they took to begin the season. According to Nate Taylor of the Sun Sentinel [source], offensive coordinator Brian Wright has said that true freshman Greg Howell will play on Saturday. Some recruiting sites pegged Howell as FAU’s highest-rated prospect, so this is definitely an exciting development regarding the running back situation.

2.) Big Plays - Lucky Whitehead and Jenson Stoshak have been Florida Atlantic’s big-play guys for most of 2014. While Lucky has been tearing it up underneath, Stoshak has been Jaquez Johnson’s best friend over the top of the defense. These big plays have been detrimental to FAUs success this season and the Owls will need to utilize a few to gain momentum right off the bat. Look for a trick play or two to be wrinkled in as the Owl offense tends to flash their home confidence often.

3.) Contain the WKU Offense - Coach Partridge did the media rounds this week and mentioned that WKU is on top of four major offensive statistical categories every single time. The Owls are obviously not overlooking the Hilltoppers and the staff is fairly familiar with quarterback Brandon Doughty, having recruited him out of nearby North Broward Prep. Between Leon Allen and the bevy of wide receivers, I expect WKU to give FAU all they can handle. The first team to get two consecutive stops on defense will come out of this one victorious and the only way the Owls can do that is to prevent big plays and contain the Western Kentucky playmakers.

4.) Good Special Teams Play - One aspect the Owls have neglected in recent weeks is special teams. While the kicking has been serviceable (knock on wood), the punt and return games have fallen off from their early success. Lucky Whitehead has appeared visibly frustrated with the space he's being provided on returns, while punters Dalton Schomp and Ryan Rickel have also seen less punts fall within the 10-yard line from the beginning of the season. The Owls need to win the field position battle here as the Hilltoppers will undoubtedly move the ball on an already thin defense.

5.) Playing with Confidence - Last season, FAU finished with four straight victories en route to bowl eligibility and a .500 season. This mild success came right off the heels of the Carl Pelini situation and the Owls could have easily faltered. Be it true resiliency or four terrible opponents, FAU knew how to win with a chip on their shoulder and they will have to do it again this season. There is no scandal or distraction to fall back on this time around though, just terrible football. With their backs against a losing season, we can expect Charlie Partridge and the Owls to come out swinging in Boca Raton.

Prediction: Florida Atlantic 42, WKU 31.

WKU (by Andrew Thomas)

Western Kentucky has been the most exciting and most depressing team to watch this season. Their offense is averaging 433 passing yards per game, while their defense is giving up over 38 points per game. We could easily be looking at a one or two loss Hilltopper team, but they still have some time to get better. Their opponent (FAU) ranks 103rd in the FBS in yards per game and is giving up over 35 points per game. WKU should have no problem scoring points on Florida Atlantic, so I expect a high scoring game.

1.) Defense (again) - This seems to always be one of my "Keys to the Game" for Western Kentucky. Bottom-line: The Hilltoppers need to get better. Fast. (read my exhaustive rant on the WKU defense here)

2.) Tackling - Tackling was (somewhat) surprisingly a huge issue for WKU in its last game against UAB, and deserves some of the blame for the team's defensive struggles in their 42-39 loss. You can't stop an opposing offense with arm tackles!

3.) Establish the Run - Junior running back Leon Allen was limited in last week's UAB game, so head coach Jeff Brohm turned to Anthony Wales to carry the load. Wales, a sophomore out of Louisville (KY), was impressive against UAB with 138 yards on 14 carries and three touchdowns. I listed him as one of my Keys to the Game heading into the UAB game. The down side to not having Leon Allen is losing the ability to rely on the run game. While Wales can be explosive, he isn't necessarily a 20+ carry back like his counterpart. Look for Western Kentucky to run the ball early and often on the road Saturday at FAU. Western Kentucky should have a field day offensively against Florida Atlantic; the Owls are ranked 99th in the country against the run -- giving up over 200 yards per game -- and 91st against the pass.

4.) Special Teams - Fundamentals: often the difference in football games. WKU missed a field goal, an extra point, and let UAB score on a kick return on the first play of the game two weeks ago. Western will need to clean things up in order to win this week.

5.) Finish Games - This applies to both the offense and defense. As we've come to find out, the Western Kentucky defense can rarely be relied on. Senior quarterback Brandon Doughty will have to come through in late game situations if his Hilltopper team wants to turn its season around. In every loss this season WKU has had a lead in the second half; head coach Jeff Brohm has emphasize that his squad must finish this week against Florida Atlantic.

Prediction: History tells us that Nick Holt's WKU defense will not improve much this week; however, their opponent 's offense is one of the weakest the Hilltoppers have faced all season. Barring any epic collapse, which seems to be more frequent than defensive coordinator Nick Holt will admit, I think the Hilltoppers will run away with this one:

WKU 58, Florida Atlantic 45.