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Game Preview: Florida Atlantic vs Western Kentucky

Owls will likely look to pound it out against Hilltoppers behind line's improvement

After an emotional win and dominate performance over rival FIU, Florida Atlantic football returns to action Saturday afternoon on the road against a struggling Western Kentucky team.

The Hilltoppers recently held the nation’s longest losing streak of 26-straight games, until they defeated Louisiana-Lafayette in the program’s first win in two years. However, that win lost some of its luster when the team was blown out 33-6 by North Texas a week ago.

Despite the problems Western Kentucky has faced over the years, they have always managed to keep games with the Owls close. FAU is 2-0 all time against WKU, but the victories have been won by only a combined 10-points.

“We’re treating it like another game, the last two years we have been with them, it’s been a dogfight,” junior safety Marcus Bartels said.

FAU won 24-20 two years ago, and came from behind last season to win 29-23, thanks to running back Alfred Morris’s 122 yards on the ground. Western Kentucky this year finds themselves with new leadership under first-year Head Coach Willie Taggart, but some holes from the previous seasons still haven’t been filled.

One of those gaps has been the Hilltoppers inability to stop the run, as this season they field one of the worst run defenses in the Sun Belt Conference, giving up an average of 199.13 rushing yards per game. Last week in the loss to North Texas, the unit allowed a season-high 311 rushing yards and four touchdowns via the run.

“We’re going to try and go in there and exploit it,” Morris said of the defense. “We’re going to make the goal to rush for at least 200-yards, so we’re going to try and spread the ball around as much as possible.”

FAU did just that in last week’s win, as Morris and fellow running back Willie Floyd combined for 189-yards and two touchdowns in the team’s top rushing performance of the season. The offense featured a “wishbone” formation for the first time in a while with the two players and senior running back Jeff Blanchard in the backfield. The new personal package provided just the spark the run game needed, scoring an easy touchdown, and coaches have continued applying it in practice.

“It’s a different aspect, coach is coming up with a lot of different packages to utilize our abilities,” Morris said. “Sometimes I’m a decoy, sometimes I’m not, but when you put all of us in there, you don’t know who to really key on and it gets the defense off of focusing on one guy.”

While Morris is more of the power runner in the group, Floyd has brought more of the flash to the backfield. “My role in the offense is a speed back,” Floyd explained.

One of the reasons offensive coordinator Darryl Jackson has installed the new formation has been the change in skill sets from years before. FAU has had talented wide receivers and tight ends over the past few seasons, but now most of the talent lies within the ball carriers.

“This year our veteran players are at the running back position, so when you’re loaded with more running backs than any other position you got to use them and give them an opportunity to get out on the field,” Jackson said.

Along with the development of the run game, one thing that has seen improvement over the last few games has been the play of the offensive line. The Owls had given up 19 sacks through the first six games of the season, but allowed only one in their most recent contest, a sign that the unit is gaining some steam.

“The kids have a lot more confidence and they understand that all the hard work they put in finally showed something,” Offensive line coach Dale Williams said.

Morris, a player running behind the blocking of the lineman, agreed with what Williams had to say adding that every week he can tell that the line play is improving.

“Each week they are building more and more confidence as the year goes on,” Morris explained.

While running the ball will be one of the keys to FAU’s offense, the defense will have to limit Western Kentucky’s own rushing attack as it is a staple in their offense.

Junior running back Bobby Rainey is 62 yards away from a 1000-yard season, and has already posted five games over the century mark, with two of those performances coming at Kentucky and Nebraska. The elusive running back sits atop the conference in rushing yards thus far and is tied for the most rushing touchdowns with seven.

“He’s a competitor,” Bartels said of Rainey. “He runs hard and doesn’t want to go down, which makes him a good back.”

The Owls defense has shown improvement throughout the season, and put together its best performance of the year against FIU allowing only nine points and 360 yards of total offense. Turnovers played a big role in the game, as the group intercepted three passes and recovered a fumble. Bartels had two of the interceptions, and credits them to the play of the defensive line.

“If our d-line can play like monsters like they did last week, it makes it easier for the whole team,” Bartles said.

Even though Western Kentucky doesn’t have the best record, the Owls understand that week in and week out anything can happen in the Sun Belt Conference.

“This is a crazy conference, there isn’t too much difference between the level of team play, you got to go into each game and give it your best,” Bartels said.

The Matchups

QB Kawaun Jakes vs. FAU’s Front-7 - The Achilles heel for FAU’s defense the past couple of seasons has been dual-threat quarterbacks, and Jakes would qualify as one. A product of the St. Augustine, Florida the sophomore quarterback has started 16 games since joining the team as a freshman and has rushed for 449 career yards. The Owl’s defensive line and linebackers will need to prevent Jakes from scrambling on broken plays and gaining first downs with his feet.

WR Lester Jean vs. WKU’s Secondary - In almost every preview we have highlighted Jean, but week in and week out he continues to find production regardless of how teams cover him. The Hilltoppers have only allowed one receiver to break the 100-yard mark this season, and rank third in the conference in pass defense. A year ago, Jean posed a problem for Western Kentucky catching four passes for 99-yards and two touchdowns.

LB Randell Johnson vs. RB Bobby Rainey - Johnson, a redshirt-freshman linebacker, is coming off a career game against FIU in which he recorded a team-high 13 tackles. Last time the Owls saw Rainey, he ran for 144-yards on only 15 carries, and was making plays all over the field. Johnson will need another solid outing Saturday afternoon if the defense hopes to contain one of the top ball carriers in the conference.

By the Numbers

Punter Mickey Groody has quietly had one of the biggest impacts this season, ranking second in the conference in punting with a 44.97 yard average. Last Saturday, he had a great outing hitting a school long 73-yard punt and averaging 46.67 yards an attempt. The Owls will once again need a good showing from the punter, as WKU is talented in the return game with freshman returner Willie McNeal.

In the Hilltoppers lone win this season, Jakes completed 81.8 percent of his passes and accounted for three touchdowns in the process. FAU’s pass defense is second in the conference giving up only 186.3 yards per game, but has allowed opponents to complete 60.3 percent of their passes. The Owls will have to limit Jakes’s throws in the spread offense and put pressure on him to find success defensively.

Final Word

FAU is looking for their first back-to-back wins since the end of last season. The last time in Bowling Green Charles Pierre’s ran for 192 yards and two touchdowns helpeing to anchor a win.  Morris found that same success running the ball last year, and quarterback Jeff Van Camp was on his mark throwing three touchdown passes in the victory. FAU should look to run the ball heavily against Western Kentucky and the opportunity for success should be there. If the Owls can effectively move down the field and the defense shows up to play, conference and bowl game talk could get a little bit more realistic.


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