BOCA RATON – For all the accolades FAU is receiving for its play at the back end of its defense this season, today’s Shula Bowl may be decided by what FAU is able to do closer to, or even behind, the line of scrimmage in pass defense.
FAU’s ability to pressure, and ultimately sack, FIU quarterback Alex McGough – especially early in the game – may be what puts FAU in a position to reclaim the Shula Bowl trophy.
The Owls lead the nation with 18 interceptions, but with only 16 sacks on the season, their average of 1.6 sacks per game that ranks No. 96 nationally. Sacking quarterbacks remains a work in progress for the Owls.
“I think we’re still not there,” FAU coach Lane Kiffin said. “I think if we were [a good pass-rushing defense] we’d be a pretty dominant team because our issue is third down. That’s when we really need the pass rush.”
FAU allows its opponents to convert third downs into first downs 44 percent of the time. Only 17 teams nationally allow a higher percentage. Of those teams only Memphis and Colorado St. are currently bowl eligible.
“If we rushed better, I think you’d see more sacks, obviously, and more fumbles,” Kiffin said. “We get a lot of interceptions but we don’t get as many fumbles.”
Leighton McCarthy leads the Owls with three sacks. Hunter Snyder and Ernest Bagner are right behind with 2.5.
The relative lack of sacks this far into the season isn’t completely the Owls fault. FAU opened the season against Navy and Wisconsin, two teams that rely so heavily on the ground game that the opportunities for sacks are inherently limited.
Two weeks ago against Marshall FAU elected not to pressure Chase Litton, opting instead to drop as many bodies into coverage as possible. The strategy worked, producing four interceptions in a 30-25 victory.
Aside from that Marshall game, FAU has been able to pressure quarterbacks but struggled to actually bring them to the ground.
“We’ve missed a lot of sacks, too,” defensive end Steven Leggett said. “We’re still getting there. We’ve just got to make them count once we get our hands on them.”
FAU emphasized sacking the quarterback, not simply harassing him, this week in practice.
“We’re getting progressively better in that aspect,” defensive lineman Haiden Nagel said. “That’s what we’ve been emphasizing in film – just like, we need to finish on that. You do the hard part, now you’ve just got to capitalize on it.”
GameBrowser: FAU (7-3, 6-0 C-USA) vs FIU (6-3, 4-2 C-USA)
FIU (6-3, 4-2 C-USA)
vs. FAU (7-3, 6-0 C-USA)
- When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Howard Schnellenberger Field
- Radio: ESPN West Palm (106.3 FM)
- Video: Stadium
Key for the Owls: Contain FIU QB Alex McGough. The Panthers’ senior quarterback isn’t known to be a runner, but he scored twice in last season’s game on read-option runs and also threw a touchdown pass. He’s not a dynamic quarterback, but McGough is capable of making enough plays to win. Sound like any other Shula Bowl QB?
Key for the Panthers: Shut down FAU’s running game. FAU rushed for 236 yards last season, highlighted by a 68-yard, first-quarter TD run by Buddy Howell. Devin Singletary’s amazing body of work this season has him leading the nation in rushing touchdowns and among the Top 10 backs in yards per carry. FIU must make FAU QB Jason Driskel beat them. Of course, that strategy didn’t work too well for Louisiana Tech last week.
The Series: FAU still holds a commanding 10-4 lead in the Shula Bowl series (FIU had to vacate one win), but FIU is narrowing the gap. Four of FIU’s five wins came in the six most recent games. No Shula Bowl has ever been more important. With a win FAU claims Conference USA’s East Division crown and will host the C-USA championship game. FIU can still take that berth away from FAU with a win on Saturday and a victory over Western Kentucky next week, combined with an FAU loss to Charlotte.
National Recognition: Two key Owls moved closer to winning major national awards. On Friday Singletary learned that he is one of 11 finalists for the Doak Walker Award, presented each year to the nation’s premier running back. One day earlier the Maxwell Club announced Kiffin as one of 16 semifinalist for their coach of the year award.
Been There Before: FIU enters Saturdays’s game loaded with experienced playmakers, especially on offense. Senior running back Alex Gardner rushed for at least 100 yards in each of his first three Shula Bowls. McGough won two of his three Shula Bowls. Panthers’ leaving receiver Thomas Owens is also a senior, but he didn’t make much of a Shula Bowl impact until last year when he caught four passes for 61 yards and a touchdown. Five of the six key players listed in our Opposition Research are seniors. The sixth is a junior.
First Timers: When it comes to Shula Bowls, two of the least experienced people on the field today will be the coaches. Both own national championship rings – Kiffin as an offensive coordinator at Alabama, FIU’s Butch Davis as an assistant on Miami’s 1987 team. Both coaches took over programs picked to finish at the bottom of Conference USA and have them bowl eligible with two weekends remaining in the regular season. “We’re getting spoiled down here because both programs are doing it at the same time – in the first year,” Kiffin said.