The Owls travel to division-leading FIU for the Shula Bowl this week, their postseason hopes dangling on the line.
A loss would force FAU to win its final three games to reach a bowl game. And a win would both hand FIU its first Conference USA loss of the year, and be the Owls’ first in Miami in nearly a decade – the last time being 2009.
FAU will be playing a much improved squad than what it has seen in years past.
Second-year FIU coach Butch Davis has his team rolling in 2018 after an up-and-down first season, helping the Golden Panthers jump to a 6-2 start which has them atop Conference USA’s East division.
FAU has suffered a shift in the opposite direction.
After sweeping the conference a season ago, the Owls have regressed to below .500 through eight games and have only one win over their last five.
Historically, FAU has the edge in this matchup, owning an 11-5 series lead. But the Golden Panthers have climbed back into the conversation in recent years, trading wins with their rivals over the last five meetings. FAU won 52-24 last year in Boca Raton.
The Owls haven’t had the dominant season many fans thought they had in store. There’s no getting around that reality.
But a victory in Miami to spoil FIU’s undefeated in-conference streak would be as sweet of a compromise they can ask for.
THE FILE: FAU (3-5, 1-3) at FIU (6-2, 4-0)
The Golden Panthers’ well-balanced offensive attack has been the primary catalyst for their upswing this season. FIU has C-USA’s third best rushing offense (176.1 yards per game), and is No. 1 in passing efficiency (162.8). Sustaining drives hasn’t been a problem for the Golden Panthers, as they lead the conference with a 47.2 percent third-down conversion rate. Spreading the ball has kept the potent FIU offense unpredictable; six players have at least 14 receptions, and its three primary running backs each have 60-plus rushing attempts on the year.
Offensive Players to Watch :
24 D’Vonte Price, So, RB: Easily the Golden Panthers’ most explosive back despite a limited workload, Price ranks third on his team in carries but is first in both rushing yardage (427) and touchdowns (5). His wiry but strong 6-foot-2 frame and game-breaking speed helped him reach a mark of 6.8 yards per carry – No.1 among C-USA backs with 25-plus attempts.
12 James Morgan, R-Jr, QB: A Bowling Green transfer, Morgan provided a seamless transition for the FIU offense sans former four-year starter Alex McGough. Morgan’s 19 passing touchdowns are second most in C-USA, and he has only four interceptions through eight games. Armed with a quick release and good feet in the pocket, Morgan is having a career resurgence as the Golden Panthers’ new signal caller.
11 CJ Worton, R-Jr, WR: A seldom-used reserve at Florida, Worton turned into a bonafide No. 1 target since debuting at FIU. The former Gator leads the Panthers in receptions (24), receiving yards (499) and touchdowns (5) on the year. He has cooled down after a blistering start to the season, however, totaling four catches for 40 yards over the past two weeks.
C-USA’s fifth best scoring defense (22.1) and sixth best total defense (366.9), FIU has been a tough team to move the ball on this season. Its defense is strongest on the back end, where it is one of only two C-USA units with double-digit interceptions on the year (10), and is allowing a mere 191.3 passing yards per game – fourth in the conference. The Golden Panthers have been exploitable when it matters most, allowing opposing offenses to convert 42.3 percent of their third downs (12th in C-USA), and 63.6 percent of their fourth downs (worst in C-USA).
Defensive Players to Watch:
3 Sage Lewis, R-Jr, LB: A tackling machine from his middle linebacker position, Lewis’ 88 stops tops all C-USA defenders through eight games. He’s no slouch in coverage, either, ranking second on his team with five pass break ups. 2018 has truly been Lewis’ break-out year; he is on pace to more than double his 55 tackles of a season ago.
91 Anthony Johnson, Sr, DL: FIU’s most skilled pass rusher, Johnson leads FIU with 3.5 sacks on the year. He ranks second among FIU defensive linemen in tackles (27), and third in tackles for loss (4). FAU did a great job limiting his impact the last time the two teams met, holding him to three tackles and no sacks.
4 Isaiah Brown, Jr, CB: A season-ending injury halted Brown’s emergence last year, but he’s now back to flashing the star potential he showed as a part-time starter in 2016. The Tampa native has the length (6-foot-1) to bother receivers on the perimeter; and if they do happen to get off the line, he has the closing speed to track down the ball and make a play on it. Brown leads FIU with two interceptions, and is tied for third in pass breakups (4).