Game Preview: Florida International vs Florida Atlantic
The Shula Bowl is always circled on the schedule as “big game” regardless of the team’s records. But this Saturday that will mean a little bit more for the Florida Atlantic football squad, as they take on Florida International in the ninth annual meeting.
In years before, FAU has generally been the stronger team headed into the annual in-state rivalry, however this season the Owls have lost five games in a row and are 0-3 in the Sun Belt Conference for the first time ever. On the other side, the Golden Panthers are 2-4 and looking to go 3-0 in conference play for the first time in school history.
“This week nothing really matters – stats, records – we’re playing our rival, and we want to go out there and kick their tail,” Quarterback Jeff Van Camp said.
FAU fell 37-16 on the road to Arkansas State last weekend, due to a collapse in the fourth quarter in which the offense turned the ball over three times and the Red Wolves scored 28 straight unanswered points.
Van Camp went 13-of-27 for 227 yards in the loss, throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions. The senior quarterback has now thrown an interception in four straight games, and the team hasn’t scored more than 17 points since the opener. One of the problems for the offense has been the offensive line which has started nine different players this season.
The Owls started their third center of the season, when Ryan Houston snapped the ball last Saturday, and the unit gave up four costly sacks. FAU is now tied for the second most sacks given up in the conference with 19.
One bright spot for Van Camp and the offense this season has been senior wide receiver Lester Jean, the Sun Belt’s leading pass catcher with 512 yards. The quarterback and receiver connected on an 80-yard touchdown pass last week in the loss to Arkansas State, but Jean has managed only five catches in the past two games, something that he thinks is because defenses are honing in on him.
“All of the teams have been playing one safety over the top, and one guy already on me. I think it just comes with being good,” Jean said of the coverage.
This week shouldn’t get any easier for the Jean as he will be facing one of the conference’s top cornerbacks in senior Anthony Gaitor. Both players are from the Miami area and know each other, but he wouldn’t consider the rival a “friend.”
“He’s a great athlete. He’s from Miami, I’m from Miami. We know the same kind of people and I just hope he’s ready to have a good game and prepare for the challenge,” Jean said of Gaitor. “I hope they just single me up on him so we can have a big day on offense.”
Gaitor has been one of the key pieces in the turnaround of the Golden Panther’s defense this season, as they have gone from worst in the conference a year ago, to the leader in total defense. Opponents are only averaging 340.7 yards of total offense per game, and just 174 yards of passing. FIU has also recorded 15 sacks and forced 10 turnovers in six games.
One of the Golden Panther’s best defensive outings this season came when they held the nations seventeenth ranked offense to just 27 points in the team’s seven point loss to Texas A&M.
“They run to the ball more and they cause more turnovers this year than they did last year, but they still give up big plays too. So if we can just go out there execute and play our game we should be okay,” Jean said of the improved defense.
FAU’s defense has shown some improvements of its own playing a solid first three quarters in the loss to Arkansas State, but the players understand they need to be able to finish out the whole game.
“It’s always important to play four quarters. That’s what we worked on in the summer and the spring”, defensive end Kevin Cyrille said. “you can’t give up in the fourth quarter.”
FIU’s offense is led by junior quarterback Wesley Carroll, a pro-style passer that transferred from Mississippi State after his freshmen season. Carroll has shown plenty of talent so far, throwing for 1,257 yards with six touchdowns and six interceptions.
However the real strength of the Golden Panther’s offense lies in its running game. Running backs Jeremiah Harden, Darriet Perry and Darrian Mallary form a trio of ball carriers that all have rushed for 220 yards or more thus far. Harden, a transfer from Syracuse, started the first four games for FIU, but Perry and Mallary have split the last two starts.
“We can’t treat them different, we’ve got to make our tackles”, said Cyrille.
Cyrille and Jean, like many players that will be playing in Saturday’s game, hail from the Miami-Dade area and know the bragging rights that are on the line.
“It’s very important, because I’m the one that’s got to go home and talk to these kids, and they’re younger than me. “I don’t want them having the upper hand saying ‘oh we got ya’ll this year’, I definitely want this win,” Cyrille said.
Jean chimed in on what the rivalry means as well, “It’s like playing neighborhood football, its more competition, it’s more personal, and I just can’t wait.”
FAU’s CB covering WR T.Y. Hilton – Hilton is considered by some as the most dynamic playmaker in the conference with 4,228 career all-purpose yards and 19 career touchdowns. Primarily a receiver, Hilton will stretch the field with his speed, and will pose a big threat for FAU’s defensive backs. The Owls also need to look out for the playmaker on special teams as he is also a threat returning punts and kicks.
FAU’s Front Seven stopping FIU’s running backs – The Owls are giving up a Sun Belt high 202.8 yards per game on the ground. FIU won’t be afraid to run the ball and works their passing game off of it. The linebackers and defensive line will need to adapt to the three running backs and limit the big runs.
DE Corey Henry rushing QB Wesley Carroll – FIU has only given up a Sun Belt best seven sacks this season, in large part because of an improved offensive line group that has provided time for Carroll in the pocket. Henry, a true freshmen and native of the Miami area, is tied for second in the conference with four sacks and has managed one in three straight games.
By the Numbers:
FIU hasn’t given up a first quarter touchdown this season and has outscored opponents 41-6 in the first fifteen minutes of play. If the Owls can march down the field and score early it could be a sign of good things as the Golden Panthers are 0-3 this season trailing at half.
Wesley Carroll is 1-3 this season when throwing an interception, and FAU’s defense has already managed five this year. If the Owls can add another it should help take the pressure off the defense.
This is homecoming week for the Owls, but only the second home game of the season. Of note, Saturday will mark the first time the Shula Bowl will be held at Lockhart Stadium. The last time FAU and FIU battled, it was the season finale for both teams, and the Owls prevailed 28-21 in a close fought game. Running back Alfred Morris ran his way into the conference rushing title, scoring two touchdowns and racking up 158 yards in the process. FAU is 7-1 against FIU all time. For the Owls to pull this one out, they will need to be able to move the ball against a stiff FIU defense and find production from play makers. If they are able to do that, a fifth straight win over the Golden Panthers isn’t out of the question.