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Game Preview: Florida Atlantic vs Louisiana-Monroe

Owls in need of a productive day offensively

Florida Atlantic football welcomes back Sun Belt conference play Saturday night with a trip to the University of Louisiana-Monroe, in a series in which the road team has won every meeting. After a physical 31-3 loss to South Florida last Saturday, the Owls come into this week’s matchup against a team that is only 1-3 (0-1) on the season, with their only victory being a one-point win over FCS Southeastern Louisiana.

FAU’s offense has struggled throughout the first four games of the season, averaging only 303.3 total yards a game and 17.3 points. Most of the growing pains however come from a young and often injured offensive line that gave up seven sacks to USF.

“We’ve produced some yardage but not near enough points,” Head Coach Howard Schnellenberger said of the offense. Saturday night, that offense will feature two new starters on the line, in center Mike Nweze and right tackle Joe Bailey, who are taking over for the injured Jimmie Colley and Max Karrick.

Nweze will be starting his first career game against ULM, but it won’t be the first game action he’s seen at center. Having played guard, tackle and center in fall camp, the redshirt-freshman snapped the ball in games against UAB, Michigan State and USF this year.

“It’s gotten a lot easier from the beginning of the season, definitely,” Nweze said of playing center. “Really at this point it’s just executing the plays.”

The other new starter, redshirt freshman Joe Bailey, started the first game of the season at UAB, but has been in a reserve role since.

Running back Alfred Morris and the run game have seen the most effects from a young offensive line, as the team’s rushing offense ranks worst in the Sun Belt, averaging only 73.5 yards per game. Morris, the conference’s leading rusher last season, has only eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark once this season, and had a career low 22-yards as a starter against USF.

“Alfred (Morris) hasn’t been quite as explosive as he was a year ago and our offensive line hasn’t been able to create defining holes that allow him to run a little better,” Schnellenberger said of the slow start to the rushing attack.

FAU’s 294 total rushing yards through the first four games of the season, is the school’s worst mark in that category since 2006, a year in which the Owls finished 5-7.

The good news for Morris is that the last time he clashed with the Warhawks, he rushed for 122-yards and a touchdown, recording his first 100-yard game in a 27-25 loss.

ULM’s defense shouldn’t be too much different than the one the Owls faced last season, as first year Head Coach Todd Berry has left the 3-3-5 scheme from last season untouched. The Warhawks rush defense is giving up 155-yards a game, but has only allowed two players to rush for over 100 yards in 16 games.

“They look like a pretty good team up front, but it’s nothing we can’t handle,” Nweze said of ULM. “There not really complicated defensively, so that’s something a lot easier for me.”

FAU Quarterback Jeff Van Camp will be taking the snaps from Nweze, and he appears to be healed after the second-half neck injury he suffered at USF. However, his backup Graham Wilbert will miss some time due to a broken thumb. That injury will promote redshirt-sophomore David Kooi into the number-two position.

Lining up on the offensive side of the ball for ULM, will be third-year starting running back Frank Goodin, a 2,500-yard career rusher. Last year when the Warhawks faced the Owls, he carried the ball 18 times for 72-yards and a touchdown.

This season, much like the struggles Morris has seen with a young offensive line, Goodin has rushed for only 107 yards in four games, and is averaging only 2.55 yards a carry.

Warhawks offensive coordinator Steve Farmer look to have found an answer to the unproductive running game by putting the offense on the shoulders of redshirt-freshman quarterback Kolton Browning. Completing 75.8 percent of his passes last week at Auburn, Browning has passed for 793-yards this season with five touchdowns and four interceptions.

“As we saw last year, they have the ability to produce points,” Schnellenberger said of ULM.

FAU’s defense will have to contain another quarterback that isn’t afraid to run in Browning, as he also leads the team in rushing with 170 yards and a touchdown. In ULM’s only conference game, a 34-20 loss to Arkansas State, he tallied 350 total yards of offense with 83 of them coming on the ground.

“The games we have had with them over the years have been tight games, and with their new personnel and coaching staff, I’m sure they’re getting better game by game as well,” Schnellenberger said.

The Matchups

CB Tarvoris Hill covering WR Luther Ambrose - Hill has had an impressive season so far leading the Owls with two interceptions, and having recorded 18 tackles. Ambrose, a junior, is considered the second fastest man in college football after running a 10.02 100m dash at the 2010 NCAA Outdoor Championships. The 5’9” receiver has seen his production increase with Berry’s new spread attack, and had a good game at Auburn catching seven passes for 56-yards.

S Alex Ibe and FAU’s pass catchers - With the Warhawks running a 3-3-5 defense for the second year in a row, Ibe is starting at the team’s hybrid “H” role. Tied for first in the Sun Belt with four pass break ups, the safety has also managed 19 tackles and an interception this season. The Owls have shown they can throw the ball this year and Ibe should be covering a tight end or wide receiver throughout the contest.

C Mike Nweze snapping to Jeff Van Camp - Saturday night will mark Nweze’s first career start, but not his first game action this season at center. The young offensive lineman saw extensive time against USF when Jimmy Colley went down with an injury and also saw time against Michigan State and UAB. High snaps to the quarterback were a problem for Nweze in the preseason and that will need to be fixed for Saturday night.

By the Numbers

Thirteen sacks this season have been given up by the Owls’ young and injured offensive line. FAU allowed only 20 sacks last season and this season they have been a problem. USF’s defense had a field day with the line and recorded seven sacks for negative 65 yards. The Owls and its two new starters will need to figure out how to stop a ULM attack that has seven sacks on the year.

The Warhawks have struggled in the red zone, both offensively and defensively. Opposing offenses have scored on 18 of the 21 times they have been inside the ULM 25-yard line with 14 of those scores being touchdowns. The team’s offense is a Sun Belt worst, four of seven this year when in the red zone. The Owls will need to step up and capitalize when both teams are in scoring positions, as this is an area where the Warhawks have been hampered.

Final Word

This will be the second conference game for the Owls this season, and the first one on the road. Both ULM and FAU are seeking their second win of the year, and a win looks plausible for both programs in one of the most exciting rivalries in the Sun Belt. The previous six games have all been decided by a touchdown or less with the average margin of victory standing at 3.2 points.  The only two meetings in Monroe were won by a combined three points from FAU after 29-28 and 21-19 victories. FAU will need a productive day from its offense, which will mean a solid performance from its offensive line to pull this one out.


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