With only two games left in the season, Florida Atlantic football travels to Middle Tennessee State this Saturday in a must win game. The Blue Raiders 4-6 (3-3) are coming off a 27-26 victory over Western Kentucky and much like the Owls, still have hopes of making a bowl game.
FAU fell 51-17 to Texas last weekend and with only four wins thus far, the team will need to win its final two games to reach bowl eligibility. The first stop in that stretch lies with the Blue Raiders, who have had their fair share of struggles this season.
Middle Tennessee State owns the nation’s worst turnover margin at -19 and has had a bad habit of giving the ball away to opponents while not forcing turnovers of their own.
The Owls know that winning the turnover battle will be a key to victory on Saturday and for the defense that will start upfront with the Blue Raider’s quarterback Dwight Dasher. A year ago the senior leader gashed the Owls defense for 108 rushing yards, including a 74-yard touchdown scamper to propel a 27-20 win.
This season however, Dasher hasn’t quite put the numbers up that many would expect of the preseason conference offensive player of the year, throwing 12 interceptions to only three touchdown passes. Defensive coordinator Kirk Van Valkenburgh and FAU players are aware of this year’s stats but they still remember the big play from a year ago.
“That’s what he is capable of. He can be contained for 50 plays but for one play and he can turn the thing (game) around. That’s the problem, that is what he presents to you all the time,” Van Valkenburgh said of Dasher.
An area where FAU might be able to take advantage of Dasher is forcing third down and long passing situations. On third down and ten yards plus, the signal caller has a gone a merely 8-for-24 with four interceptions and has often had to rely on his feet to make plays.
Quarterback scrambles have posed problems all throughout the season for Van Valkenburgh’s defense but the coach thinks things have improved. After the initial 214 yards they gave up to UAB quarterback David Isabelle, the team has focused on containing the run and making tackles instead of mistakes.
“Since UAB, I think we have made pretty good progress, we’ve given up some plays along the way. We gave a couple, not at Texas but the week before, with the quarterback running. Those are just errors,” Van Valkenburgh said.
Limiting errors hasn’t only been a theme of the defense. After last Saturday’s three turnovers by the offense, there has been attention on improving there as well.
In a span of three plays against Texas, the Owls committed two costly turnovers that led to direct points for the opposition. Quarterback Jeff Van Camp threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown and on the next offense play running back Willie Floyd fumbled the ball away.
This week both players stressed the importance of executing flawlessly against the Blue Raiders.
“I was trying to do too much. I think we really just need to focus in on doing what we have been doing all year long which has been making a conscious effort to take care of the football,” Floyd said.
“We really just have to not turnover the ball especially since our defense is playing so good if we can just limit some of those errors,” Van Camp added.
Holding on to the football might be just what the offense needs to get things going as the unit still ranks at the bottom of the conference in rushing yards averaging only 101.6 yards a contest.
Running back Alfred Morris found some success against the Longhorns rushing for 80 yards on 18 carries, but the team was trailing and had to shift towards passing the ball later in the game.
This week things should get easier for the offense as Middle Tennessee’s rushing defense is giving up over 200 yards a game on the ground, the second worst mark in the conference. If the run game can get going that would help out offensive coordinator Darryl Jackson’s mentality heading into the matchup.
“This game is going to come down to which offense is not going to beat it’s self. We want to be the offense that doesn’t beat our self,” Jackson said.
The answer to how to avoid beating themselves appears to be eliminating mistakes and not turn the ball over, something that has traditionally posed problems for FAU against the Blue Raiders.
“We know we got to protect the football. In our games in the past we turned the ball over, last year we had two turnovers, the year before that we had four turnovers,” Jackson said. “We know we got to win the turnover battle and not turn the ball over and put our defense on a short field and in bad situations.”
FAU has dropped two games in a row to Middle Tennessee State, but this showdown might be more important than snapping the streak. Both programs are vying to make a bowl game and the Owls understand they have to take it one game at a time.
“We’re looking at Saturday like every game, we try to win every game. We know in the back of our mind that it’s important to take care of this one in order to look at the next one. We’re not even looking at the next one until we win this game,” Floyd said.
The Special Teams Battle - In last year’s win the Blue Raiders capitalized in the special teams department, blocking two kicks including a punt which was returned for a touchdown. FAU has had its up and downs all season long with the special teams game, and had a kick blocked at Texas. MTSU has already blocked five kicks on the year and has a dangerous returner in Eric Russell. A big play in the special team’s area could alter the game.
S Demetrius Williamson vs. WR Garrett Andrews - After the injury to starting safety Ed Alexander, Williamson a redshirt-sophomore will be making his first career start for the Owls this Saturday. Andrews leads the Blue Raiders with 28 receptions and has had four outings this year where he has caught four or more passes. Williamson will need to perform well in his first start and should see a lot of Andrews over the middle.
LB Michael Lockley vs. QB Dwight Dasher - Lockley is coming of the best statistically speaking game of his career in which he recorded 13 tackles and made plays all over the field. The last time FAU saw a quarterback as athletic as Dasher it was UAB’s Isabelle, who had a field day with the Owls defense. The starting linebacker should be covering Dasher on almost every play and containment will start with him.
By the Numbers
Starting at defensive end for MTSU is a special player in senior Jamari Lattimore, who is third in the nation with 10.5 sacks this season. A native of Miami, FL, Lattimore had one of the Sun Belt’s best performances this year when he managed four sacks against Louisiana tying the conference record. The pass rusher has had five games in which he has tallied multiple sacks in his career.
FAU’s red zone defense ranks ninth in the nation giving up only 18 touchdowns in 37 trips. Against Texas, the unit showed how strong it was with their backs against the wall, managing a goal-line stand on one trip and forcing two field goals on another two instead of giving up touchdowns.
The Owls are 3-4 all time against Middle Tennessee State and are 2-2 in games played in Murfreesboro, TN. Only one FAU players has every rushed for 100 or more yards against the Blue Raiders and that came from Darren Edgecomb in 2008, that last time the team made the trip to take on MTSU. That game came down to a last second “hail mary” pass that the Blue Raiders connected on to win 14-13. Dwight Dasher was the villain last year at Lockhart with his athletic ability and will be looking to do the same this weekend; making it three straight wins in the series. FAU is going to have to force turnovers against a team that is prone to giving away the ball. With all that being said, plenty of emotion will be on the field Saturday afternoon, as both teams are alive in the Sun Belt Conference race and have chances to play in the post season.