While FAU’s defense enters Saturday’s game searching for redemption, MTSU’s defensive unit has something to prove, too.
Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill jettisoned defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix in the offseason, bringing former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer to guide the defense. The difference has been striking.
“They’re obviously completely different,” FAU coach Lane Kiffin said. “New defensive coordinator. They’ve done a great job. They’re playing extremely hard. They’re very, very aggressive at what they do.”
The 24.5 points Middle Tennessee allows per game ranks smack in the middle of the pack nationally. At 104.8 yards per game, the Blue Raiders’ rushing defense ranks No. 25 in the nation.
That pits FAU’s strength, its running game, against MTSU’s strength. In Devin Singletary, Buddy Howell and Kerrith Whyte the Owls have three of the best running backs in conference USA. As a team, the Owls exceeded 250 rushing yards in both of their past two games.
“This defense runs to the ball, very talented,” Kiffin said. “They’ve got a lot of really good looking, tough strong kids – a lot of Alabama, Tennessee kids. We’re going to have to play a lot better than we have been in order to continue to run the ball like that.”
FAU defeated Middle Tennessee in 2003 on the game’s final play to give the Owls their first ever victory over an FBS opponent, but since then the Blue Raiders have pretty much owned the series. MTSU won the last nine meetings and holds an 11-3 advantage in the series.
KEYS to the GAME: FAU vs MTSU
MTSU (2-2, 0-0 C-USA)
vs. FAU (1-3, 0-0 C-USA)
- When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Howard Schnellenberger Field
- Radio: ESPN West Palm (106.3 FM)
- Video: Stadium, Locally WTCN
Key for the Owls: Decent play from the quarterback position. With the way the Owls’ running game churns up yardage, Jason Driskel or Daniel Parr doesn’t have to do much other than manage the game and hit open receivers. Neither signal caller has shown competency in that regard this season. The Owls don’t need much from the quarterback spot. Hand off to Singletary and company, and hit a couple deep balls and FAU will be positioned to win.Key for the Blue Raiders: Slow down the Owls’ rushing game. MTSU’s rush defense has been, at times, extraordinary. Last week the Blue Raiders allowed only 1 net rushing yard to Bowling Green. They’ve yet to face a ground attack with the weapons the Owls possess, though. If they can bottle up Singletary and make FAU’s quarterbacks win the game, the Owls will be had pressed to win their conference opener.
Third is Long: Four games into the Lane Kiffin era, FAU’s futility on third down remains perplexing. The Owls are only converting 27.5 percent of their third downs into first downs. Nationally, only five teams are converting at a lower rate. FAU managed only three third-down conversions against Buffalo. Two were on runs. The third resulted from a fantastic effort by tight end Harrison Bryant, who fought through a couple would-be tacklers to get the extra five yards needed to move the chains.
Banged Up: With starting quarterback Brent Stockstill not expected to play because of injury, his backup John Urzua will likely be the Blue Raiders signal caller. Last year, in a similar situation, FAU knocked Urzua out of the game, forcing wide receiver Richie James to act as quarterback. All he did was roll up more than 200 rushing yards and three touchdowns as the QB. MTSU might not be able to rely on James’ heroics this year. He’s injured, too, and is considered to be a game-time decision.
Taming the Wildcat: With their quarterbacks injured last season, MTSU consistently burned FAU with direct snaps to James. FAU didn’t get too specific about what they expect to see from MTSU this year, but defensive end Haiden Nagel did offer this nugget: “I’ve looked at film on that.”
Whyte’s Might: Kerrith Whyte has served mostly as the Owls’ third down back for the past two seasons, but with Buddy Howell out with an injury last week he needed only five carries to amass 72 yards. A redshirt sophomore, Whyte believes he could be an every down back if given the opportunity. “I’ll do whatever it takes to help the team win, so if (being a third-down back is) my role that’s my role, but I’m not going to sell myself short and say I’m just a third down back,” he said.
This week many of those same Owls are drawing strength from that shameful performance, attempting to prove to MTSU on Saturday, and all of Conference USA for that matter, that this defense will no longer be abused. It will deliver the abuse.
“Obviously there’s an edge with what happened last year,” safety Jalen Young said. “That’s motivating us to play even harder than we’re already playing.”
Already guaranteed of another postseason sitting a home, the Owls flew into Murfreesboro last December with a 3-8 record, playing for little more than their pride. The Blue Raiders stripped that from FAU, too.
MTSU slashed and darted to 495 rushing yards, sprinting to 11 touchdowns – the most ever allowed by an FAU defense – and a 77-56 victory over the Owls.
“It’s something that you think about but you let that drive you to be better – obviously you don’t want that to set you back,” linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair said. “I mean 77 points? This is a completely different defense.”
The most shocking part of those 77 points? MTSU scored that many playing most of the game without a college quarterback. After FAU knocked back-up quarterback John Urzua, playing for the injured Brent Stockstill, out of the game in the first quarter, MTSU ran direct snaps to running backs and receivers.
Wide receiver Richie James owned the night, rushing for 213 yards and three touchdowns, and throwing for 76 yards. He also caught a touchdown pass.
“Seventy-seven points is unacceptable,” FAU running back Kerrith Whyte said. “That can’t happen. Defense, they are doing their thing this year. I know they are going to shut them down.”
Statistically speaking, FAU’s defense isn’t all that much better than it was last year. Surrendering 259.5 rushing yards per game, the Owls rank No. 121 out of 129 teams nationally against the run.
But part of that can be attributed to who the Owls played. Few teams find much success stopping Navy’s triple option – the Midshipmen are off to a 3-0 start. The Wisconsin Badgers have long been beasts on the ground. And maybe the 204 rushing yards FAU allowed to Buffalo last week can be ascribed to the absence of Al-Shaair, the Owls’ leading tackler who says he intends to play on Saturday despite FAU coach Lane Kiffin labeling the junior as a game-time decision.
Almost every Owl this week said comparing this year’s defense to the one that surrendered 77 points is pointless.
“It is different,” Young said. “Everybody’s different, from the coaching staff to the players.”
Those players are, for the most part, significantly better than last year. Conference USA defensive Player of the Year Trey Hendrickson is now playing for the New Orleans Saints, but the Owls added bulk in defensive tackle Jeremiah Taleni and speed in defensive end Earnest Bagner.
The linebackers – Al-Shaair was the only healthy regular who finished last year’s game – are healthy, for the most part. And FAU’s secondary has newfound depth, with true freshman Zyon Gilbert lining up next to Young as a starting safety, four strong cornerbacks, and true freshman nickel Quran Hafiz making significant contributions defensively.
One newcomer on offense, wide receiver DeAndre McNeal, admitted shock when he heard the Owls surrendered 77 points – “I’m from Texas. You don’t even hear about 77 points in a college game,” he quipped – but cautioned some on defense about leaning too heavily on the revenge factor.
“I’ve been told from previous players that it’s kind of like a statement game – a rematch game,” McNeal said. “But I told them, don’t think of it that way. It’s just a regular game. They have football players. We have football players. It’s just a game.”
That message may not have made it’s way to Young, who insists the proud Owls need to make that statement in this, the Conference USA opener, to let other conference foes know they won’t be pushed around this season.
“As a defense, I feel like we need to come out and show that we’re dominant,” Young said. “And that’s something that we are. We are dominant and I’m going to sit here and say that we are a dominant defense. That’s something we’ve got to prove every week, every team we go against.”
BOCA RATON – After going 1-3 in their non-conference schedule, FAU begins Conference-USA play against a banged up Middle Tennessee team. MTSU, 2-2, has already lost starting quarterback Brent Stockstill for a few weeks with a shoulder injury suffered at Syracuse. He isn’t expected to play on Saturday.
No. 1 receiver Richie James, who is questionable against FAU, is also fighting an ankle injury. He is listed as questionable but was walking in a boot last week according to The Daily News Journal.
Despite the Blue Raiders injuries, Lane Kiffin still has a challenge in front of him for coaching first C-USA game. MTSU has dominated FAU, winning the past nine meetings, including a 77-56 victory last year. The year prior was a 24-17 FAU loss thanks to a huge game from James, then a freshman, who scored two touchdowns over 60 yards. Kiffin is looking to change the narrative of this season.
The File: MTSU vs. FAU
THE SERIES: MTSU leads the series 11-3
LAST MEETING: MTSU 77. FAU 56 (2015)
MTSU OFFENSE: The Blue Raiders run a high-powered spread offense. This will not be like the Buffalo offense FAU faced last week. MTSU frequently employs four wide receiver sets which will keep the Owls’ secondary busy. They also like to motion player in the backfield to keep the defense on its toes. With MTSU potentially missing their two best offensive players in Stockstill and James, they may not be as explosive – but history shows FAU can’t afford to relax. Last year against FAU the Blue Raiders had 757 yards of total offense, despite playing without a full-time quarterback most of the game.
Offensive Players to Watch:
- 8, Ty Lee, So. WR: With James out much of this year Lee has been the most explosive player for the Blue Raiders. He is the player most often in motion. He’ll line up at both running back and receiver. He can be compared to a Tavon Austin with his size and speed. James leads the team in receptions with 20 and has two receiving touchdowns on the year. He also has a rushing touchdown.
- 19, John Urzua, R-So. QB: The replacement for Stockstill will play a key role. Against Bowling Green last week Urzua threw for 290 yards and two touchdowns. His big-play potential rises if Richie James is able to play.
- 3, Richie James, R-Jr., WR: James is questionable for this game but is still a danger if he plays. MTSU’s all time leading receiver, James is an explosive threat that cannot be taken lightly. In his first three years of college, he has 232 receptions for 3,177 yards and 22 touchdowns. Those are huge stats and last year vs. FAU, he put up 120 yards and a score. Serving as the wildcat quarterback last year against FAU, James rushed for 207 yards and three touchdowns, and also threw for 76 yards.
MTSU DEFENSE: The Blue Raiders run a base 4-3 defense which gives up an average of 24.5 ppg. That average places the Blue Raiders one spot ahead of FAU in the Conference USA standings. The defense also struggles to produce turnovers, having a single interception and a fumble recovery on the season. They do get after the quarterback, though, sacking opponents 11 times this season – which is tied for third most among C-USA teams. And the 104.8 yards rushing allowed per game is second best in the Conference. MTSU has yet to allow a team to eclipse the 400-yard mark in total offense, and last week against Bowling Green, MTSU only allowed one net rushing yard.
Defensive Players to Watch:
- 16 Khalil Brooks, R-So. LB: Brooks brings the biggest pressure for the MTSU front seven. He has two and a half sacks on the season and will pressure the FAU quarterback. He also has four and a half tackles for a loss on the season. Look for him to get direct pressure on FAU early.
- 30 Darius Harris, R-Jr., LB: Another linebacker who can put pressure on the run, Harris has three and a half tackles for a loss on the season and 21.5 total tackles on the season. Unlike Brooks, he is one of the better pass defenders on the team, recording two pass breakups.
COMMON OPPONENT OPPONENTS: For the second consecutive week FAU faces a team that has already played Minnesota. Middle Tennessee lost to the Gophers 34-2 on Sept. 7. Last week’s opponent, Buffalo, fell to Minnesota 17-7 in the opening game for both schools.
CONFERENCE BEGINNINGS: This is the fourth time FAU and MTSU have met for a conference opener. MTSU has the upper edge against FAU going 2-1.
“I remember at one point we put [nickel back] DJ Juste and a whole bunch of DBs – [safety] Da’Von Brown was playing linebacker next to me,” Al-Shaair said. “There were some guys that had no business up there playing linebacker that we had to throw in there because of injuries and stuff like that.”
Azeez prefers not to think about that night – one of the worst in FAU program history.
The Owls surrendered 77 points and 495 rushing yards to a Middle Tennessee team that played most of the game without a true quarterback.
FAU ended the season with that 77-56 loss to MTSU, and one day later began looking for a new coach.
Injuries to the linebacker unit rendered Owls nearly helpless against the Blue Raiders’ wildcat formation. By the game’s second half, Al-Shaair was the only healthy linebacker on the Owls’ roster to have record a tackle prior to that game.
For redshirt-sophomore Kris Harris, that game provided his first extended game action.
“I’m not really trying to dwell on that game from the past but I did learn from that game to make sure that I learn from all my mistakes and that I need to make sure I get the defense on the same page so that we can come out with a victory,” Harris said.
Harris recorded the first seven tackles of his career that night, making him the Owls’ third leading tackler of Blue Raiders.
He used that game as a stepping stone, gaining more confidence and, in turn, practice repetitions during the spring as the Owls looked for a middle linebacker following Nick Ozdemir’s decision to give up football and while waiting for Khantrell Burden and Al-Shaair to return from offseason surgery.
Al-Shaair and Burden returned for the start of the season, pushing Harris down the depth chart, but Harris is performing well enough that he’s found a place in FAU’s linebacker rotation. With Al-Shaair sidelined by injury last week at Buffalo, Harris made two tackles, raising his season total to 11.
“[He’s a] kid that was kind of down the list when we got here,” FAU coach Lane Kiffin said. “Has worked really hard, doesn’t have tremendous size but he plays really had – really physical. More of an in-the-box guy but he went in and did some good things.”
Last year’s Middle Tennessee loss provides a bittersweet memory for Harris. Statistically, it remains the best game of his college career.
But he also used the word “embarrassing” to describe the Owls’ overall play in that game.
FAU gets another shot at Middle Tennessee on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Al-Shaair says he expects to play. If he does, that will give FAU its full complement of linebackers to employ against MTSU – which alone should make huge difference compared to the previous meeting. FAU also features a deeper defensive line unit and a secondary that is buoyed by the play of true freshman Zyon Gilbert.
Harris understands what a strong defensive performance 10 months later against that same Blue Raiders squad that, literally, ran wild against them would mean for the psyche of this year’s defense.
“We’ve got a lot to prove,” Harris said. “We’re just coming out to work this year to let people know this is a new team – a new FAU Owls.”
FAU didn’t play well in last week’s loss to Buffalo but still almost pulled the upset. Now the Owls will try to end a losing streak that nearly spans a decade.
In FAU’s 34-31 loss at Buffalo on Saturday coach Lane Kiffin elected to start Jason Driskel at quarterback in place of Daniel Parr. In this week’s OwlTalk FAU football podcast host Brian Rowitz of ESPN West Palm and our Chuck King discuss the current FAU quarterback situation, what the start of Conference USA play means for FAU and whether the Owls’ defense is improved enough to end a nine-game losing streak against Middle Tennessee.
To beat the Blue Raiders, the Owls will need better play from either Driskel or Parr (we pick a starter in the podcast). FAU is also hopeful linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair will return after missing the game at Buffalo because of injury.
So take a break from your busy day and listen to the newest edition of OwlTalk – the first and still finest FAU football podcast. When it comes to discussing FAU football, there’s no one finer.
As of Wednesday, however, Kiffin still isn’t certain which quarterback that will be.
In the second week since reopening the quarterback battle, Kiffin and the Owls’ offensive coaches still haven’t seen enough separation between Jason Driskel and Daniel Parr to make a decision.
“We wanted it to be, but it really didn’t so we still split [repetitions] today,” Kiffin said moments after the conclusion of Wednesday’s practice. “We’ll go watch this [practice video] and hopefully make a decision.”
Kiffin’s search for a quarterback began shortly after his arrival in December.
Parr won the battle to start the season, but Kiffin re-opened the competition following FAU’s 45-0 Week 3 victory over Bethune-Cookman because he believed the Owls are missing too many opportunities in the passing game.
FAU hit some big plays with Parr behind center – most notably a program-record 95-yard touchdown to Willie Wright – but most of the action came near the line of scrimmage. Six passing plays either lost yardage or didn’t gain yardage in the opener against Navy. Against Bethune-Cookman, Kiffin counted 15 completions behind the line of scrimmage.
Driskel, last year’s starter, didn’t exactly reward Kiffin’s decision to start him against Buffalo, throwing for only 150 yards with an interception on Saturday. Despite Driskel’s struggles – one-third of those passing yards came on the final drive – Kiffin never inserted Parr into the game.
He isn’t planning on trying a two-quarterback system this week against the Blue Raiders either.
“I doubt it,” Kiffin said. “One guy needs to play and do the right things so we can win.”
Parr and Driskel spent the early portion of the past two weeks splitting snaps with the first team. Leading up to the Buffalo game Kiffin decided on the starter prior to Thursday’s walk-though, but never actually told Driskel that he won the job.
That week Driskel took the majority of the snaps during Thursday’s and Friday’s practices.
“He probably figured it out,” Kiffin said. “We didn’t make a big announcement or anything like that. We just started moving the reps in that direction.”
Driskel, Parr accustomed to QB battle
Driskel and Parr are in the midst of their second season battling each other for the starting job. A redshirt-junior, Driskel is actually part of an FAU quarterback battle for the third consecutive season, having competed against Quez Johnson in the 2015 season.
Parr took part in a quarterback battle as an underclassman at Palm Beach Gardens-Dwyer – an experience he draws upon today.
“When I was in high school my sophomore year it was kind of like the same situation,” Parr said. “I guess I’m kind of used to it.”
Parr possesses the stronger arm and enjoyed more downfield success this season compare to Driskel.
Driskel’s longest completion at Buffalo covered only 23 yards, but he did a better job in the mental aspect of the position – getting the Owls into the right plays and ensuring the proper alignment.
Both quarterbacks are, essentially, equally efficient, with Driskel completing 60 percent of his passes to Parr’s 57.3 percent. Parr’s 43 completions average 13.7 yards, a statistic that drops to 11.7 if Wright’s 95-yard touchdown is removed. Driskel’s 21 completions average 7.9 yards.
Parr said he’s concentrating on eliminating mental errors – taking the proper drop, giving a passable play fake, ensuring the offense is aligned correctly – this week in an attempt to earn his fourth start of the season.
He sees some positives from the extended quarterback battle.
“I think the good thing is you’ve got to be on your toes,” Parr said. “You’ve got to be mentally sharp. It forces us to go out there and play at our peak every day. I think that’s probably why the coaches are doing it because it forces us to take our game to another level.”
BOCA RATON – FAU’s 34-31 loss at Buffalo highlighted some of the areas where FAU is struggling – both offensively and defensively.
Not all is bad, however.
Heading into Conference USA several FAU players can be found near the top of several statistical categories within the conference.
Start with the running backs, where three FAU ball carriers are among the Top 11 in yards per carry.
Texas-San Antonio’s Brett Winnegan leads the Conference USA chart by averaging 15.8 yards per carry, but he only has six carries on the season. Among those with at least 15 carries FAU running back Buddy Howell leads the way with a 12.1 average.
Kerrith Whyte averages 6.5 yards per carry, which places him tenth in the league, sixth among those with at least 15 carries. One spot behind Whyte is FAU’s lead back, Devin Singletary, who is averaging 6.4 yards per carry.
Singletary, sophomore, is also second in both total rushing yards, 359, and rushing touchdowns with five, despite only seeing a handful of carries in the Owls’ season opener.
“Outside of the one fumble, he’s played as well as anybody on our team, certainly offensively,” FAU coach Lane Kiffin said. “It’s been great to see. He had a great first year last year and think he’s even gotten better like most people do in their first or second year.”
Despite what Kiffin considered to be a subpar game against Buffalo, wide receiver DeAndre Johnson remains second in Conference USA in average receiving yards per game with 74.5. With two TD receptions, McNeal is tied for fifth in the conference.
Defensively, linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair is third in the conference in tackles per game with 9.7. Not playing against Buffalo didn’t count against his average.
Cornerback Chris Tooley’s two interceptions are tied for the most among C-USA defenders.
FAU as a team doesn’t lead any of the important statistical categories, but the Owls are last in two telling ones.
The 259.5 rushing yards per game they’ve surrendered this season are the most in the conference by more than 50 yards (viewed a different way, that makes FAU the leader in rushing yards allowed) and FAU only averages 23:33 of offensive possession in a game. That’s the least in Conference USA.
On Tuesday, immediately following the Owls’ second practice of the week in preparation for their upcoming game against Middle Tennessee, Kiffin called out the Owls’ leading wide receiver while answering questions from the media and indicated FAU’s offensive line was far from perfect, too.
DeAndre McNeal led FAU with seven catches against Buffalo, but it was a third-down drop that sticks in Kiffin’s memory.
“He has played really well in the first three games and then last week wasn’t himself – had the critical drop on third down that killed the drive,” Kiffin said. “Really, I don’t know what it was – he didn’t play very fast at all. I don’t know. We’ve got to figure that out and get him back to how he was playing because he’s done a really good job.”
Of all the new wide receivers, McNeal has formed the quickest bond with FAU quarterbacks. His 18 catches are twice as many as any other Owl, and only fellow newcomer Willie Wright averages more than McNeal’s 16.6 yards per catch.
In each of the first three games of the season McNeal caught at least one pass for more than 25 yards. His longest catch against Buffalo only covered nine yards.
“I wasn’t that explosive, I guess you could say, in this past game against Buffalo,” said McNeal, a junior college transfer who began his career at Texas.
“I hate it that it came against Buffalo, a team that we could have beat. It won’t happen again.”
Kiffin also wasn’t pleased with mistakes the offensive line made on critical plays.
FAU rushed for 262 yards against the Bulls, but when Buffalo needed a stop the most, it got one.
Trailing 27-24 with a little less than three minutes remaining, Kiffin elected to try to pick up a first down on a fourth-and-three from the Owls own 17. The Owls gave the ball to Devin Singletary, who would account for 156 of those 262 rushing yards on the night, but he was bottled up in the backfield before lunging toward the line to make.
Singletary came up short, the ball turned over to Buffalo, and the Bulls converted the excellent field position into a touchdown, putting the game out of reach.
“(Singletary) tries to do it on his own because we don’t make the right call and we don’t block the backer – the same look we’ve had a million times.”
A sophomore, Singletary leads the Owls with 359 rushing yards on the season. Against MTSU last season he bolted through the Blue Raiders defense for 235 yards.
“We’ve got to block the guys,” Kiffin said. “(Singletary) does a great job of saving us when we don’t. It’s really good to have him, obviously, but we’ve still got to do the right things.”
“Eventually you’ve got to hit a point – I don’t know when that is – where you say, OK, we’ve tried both. Let’s look at their full body of work and make a decision,” Kiffin said. “Even though it’s really close, we’ve just got to do it.”
After starting redshirt sophomore Daniel Parr the first three games of the season Kiffin elected to give last year’s starter, redshirt junior Jason Driskel, his first start of 2017 last week in FAU’s loss to Buffalo.
The passing game didn’t look all that different with Driskel throwing the ball than it did with Parr behind center.
Driskel completed 17 of 29 pass attempts for 150 yards against the Bulls but struggled on downfield pass attempts and completed only one third down pass that produced enough yardage to move the chains.
“He missed some big plays, he’ll be the first to tell you,” Kiffin said. “You miss plays sometimes, and you miss a slant, we all do that, that’s a 10-yard gain. We missed touchdown plays.”
Missing open receivers were an obvious concern for Kiffin, but he did like the manner in which Driskel managed the game, getting the Owls into the proper play based on what the defense showed.
In what has become a season-long narrative, though, the Owls couldn’t make the right calls or plays on crucial downs.
With Driskel behind center, FAU only converted three of 10 third down opportunities. Only one of those conversions came via a completed pass, and that play required an extraordinary effort from tight end Harrison Bryant, who fought through would-be tacklers to gain the yardage necessary to extend the drive.
For the season the Owls are only converting 27 percent of their third down opportunities, which ranks No. 124 out of 129 teams nationally.
Even with both Driskel and Parr struggling, Kiffin isn’t expecting to add any more candidates to the battle.
Auburn transfer John Franklin, a former quarterback, is establised at wide receiver now and aside from a couple of change-of-pace snaps during any given game – Franklin has taken one snap in each of the last two games, running the ball both times – at receiver he will stay.
Scout team quarterback Conor Miller, a redshirt junior walk-on from Mount San Antonio College who joined the Owls prior to fall camp, is not part of the competition, Kiffin said.
Former East Mississippi CC and “Last Chance U” star De’Andre Johnson is still recovering from surgery to remove blood clots from his arm. His return this season appears to be unlikely.
“It’s just those two, really,” Kiffin said, referring to Driskel and Parr. “Obviously it’s unfortunate about (Johnson) being out. I think everybody thought he was going to be the guy who could add this other element – a similar element to what we had with Jalen Hurts at Alabama.”