Matchup: FAU (1-2, 0-0 AAC) @ Illinois (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten)
When: Saturday, September 23rd, 3:30 PM
Where: Zuppke Field at Memorial Stadium
TV: Big Ten Network
Stream: Big Ten Network
Radio: FoxSports 640
Opening Line: FAU +12
Weather: Current conditions in Champaign, Illi.
The Series: This will be the Owls' first matchup in program history against the Fighting Illini. FAU is 1-9 all-time against Big Ten opponents.
Illinois Team Site: Here
Painful would be the best word to describe the Owls' last two games, both literally and figuratively.
While they were already seen as 24-point underdogs against Clemson, allowing 41 consecutive points from the Tigers before finally scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter with the game already decided is not what FAU was hoping for when they took the field Saturday night.
The Owls now have a big issue going on at quarterback. Casey Thompson sustained a knee injury that kept him out for the rest of the Clemson game, and Daniel Richardson looked shaky leading the snap completing 18 of his 32 passes for 120 yards as the Tiger defense sacked him twice and intercepted one of his passes.
They also have to deal with the situation going on with their running back trio. Larry McCammon III continues to nurse an ankle injury that kept him out against Clemson and limited his reps the game prior, Zuberi Mobley sustained a shoulder injury, and Kobe Lewis was seen limping near the end of the Tigers' contest. Handling the physicality of strong defenses proved to be costly to the Owls' run game, as the trio's availability against Illinois remains to be seen.
FAU now turns their attention to Illinois, who also comes into this contest with a 1-2 record. 16 years have passed since the Owls' last win against a Big Ten opponent when they beat Minnesota in a 42-39 thriller back in 2007 with FAU legend Howard Schnellenberger leading the way at the helm. Notable alumni from that matchup include Rusty Smith, Charles Pierre, William Rose, Diivory Edgecomb, Jason Harmon, Cortez Gent, Lester Jean, Frantz Joseph, Cergile Sincere, Corey Small, and Tavious Polo.
On paper, the Owls appear to be similar against Illinois. Besides the fact that both teams are averaging 22 points per game, they both show a preference in passing the ball more than running it, even as FAU has 58% of their plays involve the passing game.
The fourth quarter against Clemson showed a potential avenue the Owls can take. Michael Johnson Jr. proved to be effective in his debut showing his ability to run the ball while leading the snap as he got a touchdown to show for it. If FAU wishes to go for a quarterback capable of being a dual-threat in terms of running the ball and passing the ball when needed, Johnson Jr. could be their best option.
Not only that, the creativity they showed with the trick play that allowed wide receiver Javion Posey to throw an amazing 33-yard pass to fellow receiver Devin Price in the end zone. The potential the offense has with these players at their disposal needs to be maximized.
If two of the three aforementioned running backs are unable to play against Illinois, this opens up an opportunity for the likes of Keyvon Walker and Robert Armes to step into the fray. Walker averaged 5.5 yards per carry as he finished with 22 rushing yards while Armes had four yards on two rushes during the reps they had against Clemson.
Jackson Ambush (pictured) continues to settle himself as one of the Owls' best players on defense. The linebacker leads the team in tackles with 23 (12 solo), making eight against a solid Clemson offense. Daedae Hill is also worthy to mention, as the defensive back made five tackles (three solo) for his most efficient performance to date this season.
With non-conference play wrapped up, the Owls return home to Boca Raton as they will take a bye week before hosting Tulsa at Howard Schnellenberger Field to begin conference play as an AAC member for the first time. The game will take place on October 7th at a time to be determined.
Star Watch: DL Evan Anderson This game would be big for Anderson to come out and create significant stops against the Illinois offense. The lineman had a quiet showing against Clemson, making just two tackles and a quarterback hurry after getting 12 tackles combined against Monmouth and Ohio. Anderson is due for a noteworthy performance, and having that occur against Illinois would greatly benefit the Owls to end non-conference play.
Final Word The Owls seem to be virtually similar to Illinois on paper, averaging the same number of points per game while having small differences in their tendency to run or pass the ball. As they prepare to face the Illini, there's uncertainty surrounding player availability, but the Owls have shown potential, especially in the fourth quarter of the Clemson game, with quarterback Michael Johnson Jr. and creative offensive plays. The team will look to the likes of linebacker Jackson Ambush and defensive lineman Evan Anderson for significant stops against Illinois as they aim to end non-conference play on a positive note.
Key Stats Comparison
Like FAU, the Fighting Illini are coming off two consecutive defeats after winning their season-opener.
Squeezing out a 30-28 victory over Toledo at home, Illinois could not stop Kansas and nationally-ranked Penn State from reaching the 30-point mark in their respective victories.
The Illini are not afraid to have variety in their receiving game, seeing 13 players at the position make a catch against Penn State. Of the 13, Isaiah Williams stands out with the most receptions with 16 and receiving yards with 213. The latter ties him for 62nd in the country alongside Colorado's Travis Hunter.
Illinois' defense has shown their ability to put a lot of pressure on the opposing team's quarterback. For example, they forced Penn State QB Drew Allar to throw 17 incompletions after making just eight combined in the Nittany Lions' first two games of the season. This is an area the Owls have to be cautious about to protect their quarterback and keep the aggressive Illini defense at bay.
Their defense does leave holes to exploit for FAU. Illinois ranks in the bottom 30 among the worst scoring defenses in the country with 30.67 points allowed per game. Needing an offensive spark to get back on track, exposing the Illini defense on Saturday could be the remedy the Owls need.
The Illini are also prone to turning the ball over. They gave the ball away eight times so far this season, placing themselves in the 20 worst turnover-heavy teams in the nation. Of the eight turnovers, seven of them have resulted from interceptions via Luke Altmeyer. Getting to the quarterback would be fruitful for FAU, which Illinois has conceded 11 sacks as their offensive line has been unable to fend off opposing defenses.
Following this contest, Illinois will travel eastward to Indiana as they take on Purdue at West Lafayette. The game is scheduled for September 30th at a time to be determined.
Star Watch: QB Luke Altmeyer Altmeyer enters this game with 571 passing yards and three touchdowns as Illinois's starting QB. He has also shown tendencies to take risks with the ball, throwing seven interceptions in three games with four of them coming agaist Penn State. Putting as much pressure on him as possible while denying his options on the field to throw to should be one of FAU's main tasks in stopping the Illinois offense from having smooth sailing for this upcoming Saturday.
Final Word Illinois showcases an excellent ability to score in the red zone, something that FAU will have to limit. Standout receiver Isaiah Williams is also worth keeping eyes on as the only Illini with 100 or more receiving yards so far this season. While Illinois' defense has shown the ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks, they have also allowed a significant number of points, ranking among the worst scoring defenses in the country.
Additionally, their propensity for turnovers, particularly interceptions, presents an opportunity for FAU to disrupt Illinois' offensive flow. As FAU prepares for this matchup, containing Illinois' quarterback Luke Altmeyer and exploiting their defensive vulnerabilities could be the key to success.