Know Your Foe: Q&A With Tulsa Insider Kelly Hines
After opening the season with two straight loses on the road, FAU will look to record their first win of the season against the University of Tulsa Golden Hurricanes in the friendly confines of FAU Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7 pm ET.
Special thanks to Kelly Hines of the Tulsa World for taking the time to answer these questions and offer her input on the game.
For more on Tulsa football you can find her work here Tulsa Sports Extra.
Q: What's the general feel around the football program now that Tulsa is in the American Athletic Conference?
KH: The atmosphere around the program isn't great these days, simply because of the very disappointing 3-9 season last year. That was a team coming off a conference championship and predicted to win another one, and everything fell apart. Keep in mind also that Tulsa is a very small school (3,429 enrollment, smallest in FBS) with mostly only alumni as its fanbase, making it difficult to fill a 30,000-seat stadium when the team is winning. When the team isn't winning, it's not pretty. Joining a new conference has generated some excitement, but with nine of the 11 teams having been in Conference USA, there isn't a lot of change for Tulsa except traveling to a few new places.
Q: Tulsa has generally been regarded as a great non-AQ football team the last few years where they have been known to light up the scoreboard under previous head coaches Steve Kragthorpe and Todd Graham. Since head coach Bill Blankenship's arrival the offense has dipped a bit. How much of that falls on Blankenship and his coaching staff in comparison to the other regimes?
KH: This is a very important season for Bill Blankenship. His first two years were successful, but last season was a disaster. I don't think he is on the hot seat, but another 3-9 year would certainly get him there. He played at Tulsa, coached at the high school level in Tulsa for years and then was an assistant at Tulsa before head coach. He's very well-liked by the players and really everyone who meets him. But TU needs to finish at least .500 to avoid fans turning on him.
Q: From 2010-12 Tulsa went 29-11, however last year the Golden Hurricanes surprisingly followed that stretch and went 3-9. Was last year an anomaly or a warning sign for things to come?
KH: We will find out whether last year was an anomaly very soon. Blankenship's teams have been good (2011, 2012) or bad (2013) and not really in between. It's too early to tell what this season will be like. Last year spiraled out of control and not much went right. The two best players, Keyarris Garrett and Demarco Nelson, didn't play beyond the first two games because of injury and academic ineligibility, respectively, and that played a role. Blankenship made changes to the offensive staff, but we will have to see whether that makes a difference.
Q: Tulsa has one of the smallest universities in the FBS-subdivision yet has found a way to have an extended period of success. FAU is trying to reach the level where anything less than a bowl game is deemed an unsuccessful season. How was Tulsa able to overcome the same hurdles FAU faces now and establish themselves as a perennial bowl team?
KH: Football has been a large part of Tulsa's history, going back to when it wasn't significantly smaller than its opponents. The program was up and down for several decades until Steve Kragthorpe was hired and really changed the culture. Suddenly TU was a team that had to be taken seriously. Todd Graham continued that, and now Bill Blankenship is trying to. In the past decade, Tulsa has had seven winning seasons, won five bowl games, five division titles and two conference championships, plus has victories at Navy and Notre Dame. It's very impressive, but a couple of down years could really swing things the other direction. That's why this year is so important.
Q: After going 0-2 versus Alabama and Nebraska, there is a great sense of urgency around the football program that FAU must win this game to have any hopes of going to a bowl game this year. The Owl fan base believe the competition FAU has faced up to this week's game will bode well for the Owls as many expect a win. Is this wishful thinking on our part?
KH: I don't think that's wishful thinking at all. These teams seem similar both in the level of competition and what each faced last week against top-five opponents. And when teams are evenly matched, you have to give the nod to the home team. Tulsa certainly is taking FAU seriously and knows this isn't an easy opponent.
Q: There will be a packed stadium for the Owls home opener this week. How well has Tulsa played on the road under Blankenship's tenure?
KH: Blankenship is exactly .500 on the road in his first three seasons. With a young and somewhat inexperienced team, maturity will be an issue this week with the first game on the road.
Q: What type of offense do the Golden Hurricanes run? Who are the key players Owl fans should look out for when Tulsa has the ball?
KH: Tulsa strives for pass-run balance but has been more of a passing team in its first two games. The ground game has potential but hasn't gotten going. Dane Evans certainly has improved as a passer but has had an issue with turnovers this year. The key receivers are wideout Keyarris Garrett and flanker Keevan Lucas. They both have the big-play capability. At running back, James Flanders and Tavarreon Dickerson split carries. Flanders is more of a power back and Dickerson has more explosiveness.
Q: What type of defensive schemes do the Golden Hurricanes run? Who are the players Owl fans should keep an eye on?
KH: Tulsa has a base 4-3 defense but a lot of packages built in, particularly on third down when two stud freshmen defensive ends come in – Jeremy Smith and Petera Wilson. The secondary really was supposed to be the team's strength but has been sketchy in the first two games, giving up way too many big plays. Nelson should play and needs to perform like he did in the past. The other safety is Michael Mudoh, who was fourth nationally in tackles last year.
Q: In a close game, special teams play can play a crucial role in determining who earns the victory. How does Tulsa look in the return and kicking game?
KH: Tulsa has been average in special teams all the way around. Nelson is probably the best candidate at both punt and kick returner, but until he gets back to playing at a high level I don't know how much he will do there. Two true freshmen, Bishop Louie and D'Angelo Brewer, handled punt returns last week, and receiver Conner Floyd did kick returns. At placekicker, Carl Salazar got off to a rough start in the opener but has been fine since then. He doesn't typically attempt long field goals but seems to have improved his range. The punter, Dalton Parks, was probably the player of the game last week against Oklahoma, but that's not saying a lot. He's pretty solid.
Q: Prediction Time! Tulsa wins the game if… FAU wins the game if…
KH: Tulsa wins if Evans takes care of the football and gets Garrett and Lucas involved in the offense. FAU wins if it is able to run the ball on Tulsa like Tulane and Oklahoma did. I think it will be a close game.