Owls look to make it seven straight against Mean Green
After a long bye week, Florida Atlantic football returns to action Saturday night in the season’s home-opener and Sun Belt Conference opener versus North Texas.
“They're an improved football team offensively and defensively,” Head Coach Howard Schnellenberger said of North Texas.
Winning the first game of the season at UAB and falling in a closely fought contest to Michigan State, FAU holds a 1-1 record on the year. The Mean Green enter the matchup on a three game losing streak dropping contests to Clemson and Rice, with the latest defeat coming last week in 24-0 shutout to Army.
Despite North Texas’s record, things could even get a little worse as they travel to South Florida, due to the injuries. Starting quarterback Derek Thompson and his backup Nathan Tune have both been diagnosed with season ending injuries, leaving the door open for redshirt-sophomore Riley Dodge.
Riley, the son of Mean Green Head Coach Todd Dodge, moved back to the quarterback position before the Army game after a brief stint at the wide receiver position. The quarterback started 10 games in 2009, and led the conference with a 67.7 percent completion rate. However, due to arm injuries coaches thought a move to receiver was needed - until this season’s early QB troubles.
“With the injury to Nathan Tune, we felt from a depth standpoint we needed to move Riley back to quarterback,” Todd Dodge said of the move. “It’s not that he can’t make throws, the problem with Riley’s situation is when we were going through spring ball and two-a-days, the wear and tear of the arm, 100-150 throws a day, he wouldn’t be able to get through those things."
North Texas’s answer to its quarterback delimna and limited throwing ability of Dodge will be to primarily run the ball to create offense.
Featuring Preseason All-Sun Belt running back Lance Dunbar, the Mean Green have an experienced and talented runner in the backfield to hand the ball to. Dunbar gashed the Owls for 238 yards and three touchdowns in last year’s 44-40 loss to FAU.
The Owls run defense has been the team’s biggest weakness this season giving up 285 yards per game, and ranking dead last in the nation at 120th. However, FAU’s defense is aware they need to limit the big runs and the linebackers want to take the run away.
“Last week, it wasn’t like the game was out of control, we just let a couple of big plays go off, the one for 80 and the other one for like 40, so we limit those big plays we won’t be bad,” senior linebacker Malik Eugene said of the run struggles. “That’s what our focus has been all week, eliminate big plays.”
Stopping Dunbar on the ground won’t be the only task, as Dodge ran for 463 yards and five touchdowns last year at the quarterback position.
“Watching him, I don’t think it’s something we can’t handle - he’s 'ok',” Eugene said of Dodge.
Besides Dunbar and Dodge, the Mean Green doesn’t have too much to offer on offense because of injuries. 10 starters won’t be competing against the Owls, and eight of them are on the offensive side of the ball. Centers J.J. Johnson and Nick Leppo, will not play on Saturday and that will give sophomore Aaron Fortenberry his first career start. Wide receivers Benny Jones and Chris Bynes will not play either.
“We have to prepare for the system. They have had a high powered offensive system, they just put points on the board,” Schnellenberger said.
One name to watch on the defensive side of things for North Texas is linebacker Craig Robertson who will be making his 33rd consecutive start. Robertson leads the conference with 30 tackles and has managed an interception and fumble recovery.
“It’s not a team to look past them,” senior quarterback Jeff Van Camp said of North Texas. “They got a lot to play for, they think there season is just getting started with the conference, they’ve lost their first three games, but we know they’re going to be hungry.”
FAU’s LBs vs RB Lance Dunbar - The run defense has been one of the weak spots in new defensive coordinator Kirk Van Valkenburgh’s scheme, and the linebackers will need to stop the run Saturday. Dunbar was a preseason All-Sun Belt selection and has accounted for 23 career touchdowns.
FAU's Defensive line vs QB Riley Dodge - After starting all of last season at quarterback, Dodge was moved to wide receiver in the offseason because of a “dead arm.” However after injuries to the top two quarterbacks, Dodge is back at his former position and running the Mean Green attack. FAU needs to pressure the experienced quarterback into some bad decisions and force some turnovers.
North Texas CB Royce Hill vs WR Lester Jean - Hill, a junior cornerback, will make his 25th career start Saturday night, and is expected to cover the Sun Belt’s leading receiver in Jean. At 6’0” 180-pounds, Hill has some size but will have to blanket a top-notch receiver who had 15 catches and 263 yards in the first two games.
By the Numbers
The Owls have committed 14 penalties for 100 yards in two games this season. Last year FAU committed 8 penalties for 97 yards in the win over the Mean Green. Mental errors have hampered the team in the opening games, and if the players can remain focused on Saturday it should help them execute their game plan.
Quarterback Jeff Van Camp and FAU’s passing attack is averaging 256.5 yards per game, good enough for the 31st spot in the nation. North Texas’s pass defense on the other hand is only allowing 155.7 yards in its first few games and ranks 26th nationally.
FAU is 6-0 all time against the Mean Green, however three of the games were won by a four points or less. Last year’s game was an offensive showcase in which both team’s posted more than 500 yards of total offense. Former FAU quarterback Rusty Smith, had a solid outing throwing for 308 yards and three touchdowns with one of them going to Jean. Keeping all of that in mind, and looking at the first couple of games this season, you can expect a different type of matchup this time around. North Texas will rely on Dunbar and the run game, while the Owls offense won’t be afraid to air the ball out when needed. If the team can stay focused and not look past North Texas, a win for the home team is very obtainable - as long as they can limit the run.