FAU Football: Owls aim for Bowl Eligibility vs Middle Tennessee on Senior Night

FAU Football Bowl Eligibility

Boca Raton, FL – Throughout the past several weeks for the FAU football program, the goal post has been moved of what the endgame is for this team. Against Marshall, it was winning out and possibly winning the East division for a trip to the conference championship game. Facing Old Dominion, it was again winning out and hoping for the best in the division. Versus Western Kentucky, it was aiming for a bowl game. They lost all three of those games, but there was one aspect that stayed true, it was sending out the seniors the right way. FAU Football has one more shot Saturday as the Owls (5-6, 3-4 CUSA) face the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (5-6, 3-4 CUSA) as they’re still aiming for bowl eligibility.

Senior Day

According to the school, the class consists of 20 seniors where 18 will be honored. Here is the list of players that will be a part of the senior day presentation Saturday:

#2 Akileis Leroy

#6 Nick Tronti

#9 Caliph Brice

#18 TJ Chase

#19 Willie Wright

#22 Tyrek Tisdale

#24 Zyon Gilbert

#24 Damian Alloway

#28 James Charles

#29 Korel Smith 

#35 Jordan Helm

#55 Desmond Noel 

#60 Andrew Boselli

#85 John Mitchell

#87 Zaire Mitchell-Paden

#88 Jefftey Joseph

#89 Brandon Robinson

#92 Marcel Southall

The Veterans

Running back James Charles has been a part of FAU for the last six years, played five seasons as he, Jordan Helm, John Mitchell, and Korel Smith played under three head coaches and played in two conference title games. 

Charles talks about his time at FAU and playing in his last regular-season game:

“It definitely went fast. I was just talking to [wide receivers] coach Hines Ward about how the seniors, when I came in, told me it will go fast and cherish every moment. It was well worth it and everything that came with it, it was fun,” Charles said. “So much has changed from when I first walked into the Oxley Center [FAU’s original athletic complex with football] until now. It’s just a great thing to see what FAU has become and how it is still growing to become a great program and organization. It just feels good being one of the guys that are a part of that success. It makes me feel a little better knowing that Saturday is my last game and knowing that so much that we’ve done brought two conference championships since I’ve been here, two bowl wins and three bowl games, a lot of wins, a lot of ups and downs. It’s amazing to see. I’m just happy to see what FAU has become.”

Defensive back Zyon Gilbert has been integral for the Owls secondary as Saturday will mark his 60th game played with the program, the most by any player. That accounts for 24 percent out of the 253 games played in FAU’s history.

He also spoke on his time at FAU and his final regular-season game after a long career in Boca Raton:

“I’ve seen a lot, been through a lot of experiences here. It was amazing coming here in 2017 and [now] finally playing my last game, it’s just bittersweet. I haven’t realized I played that many games. It’s been going day-by-day. It seems like I haven’t been here for long. My experience here has been phenomenal. I wouldn’t trade anything for this,” Gilbert said. “This game is just about going out as winners. We don’t want to go out with a loss. We want to go out with a win so we can be bowl eligible and win a bowl game.”

While it will be an emotional night for the seniors, there’s no doubt they want tomorrow against the Blue Raiders to be their final game. They want a bowl game, and beating Middle Tennessee is their focus.

We’ll preview the game by taking a look at the offense and defense of the Owls with final score predictions at the end:

Offense

While this season has been disappointing in a lot of aspects, the offense will remain at the top. It continued last week against Western Kentucky where they had no chance of matching up against quarterback Bailey Zappe and the Hilltoppers’ dynamic offense. 

Throughout the last three games which have all been losses, the Owls have averaged 15.3 points per game which if you want to win football games, that’s not going to cut it.

FAU Hagerty Family Head Coach Willie Taggart talks about getting the offense back on track:

“A big part of it is not just teaching players their assignment, but we have to teach our players how to go out and perform in a winning way and competing to win. Not going out to ‘do your job,’ but ‘do your job to win’ and do it that way all the time. It’s my job as a head coach to find those right guys that are going to come and have that winning attitude all the time. We have some guys like that, we need more guys that way and then the guys that are not invested in winning and doing what it takes probably need to find somewhere else to go. We have some guys that are doing it right. We need some guys to step up and help us. You see some young guys stepping up. At the end of the day, we have a young team too. That plays a factor in a lot of it, dealing with adversity when things get tough. Those guys learn to fight through those times and kind of relish the moment when things get tough because usually, that’s when great things happen. I get the frustration. We’re all frustrated. Everybody’s frustrated because we all care. We all want to do it right but winning is earned. We understand that and we know what we have to do.”

Quarterback N’Kosi Perry has had an up and down season in his first season with FAU as the last three games have been nothing but average. It’s not entirely his fault as the offensive line, receivers dropping passes, and coaching has been a factor, but he’s not without blame.

Another reason could be because of his health as he’s seen a ton of pressure this season and just recently sustained a shoulder injury against Western Kentucky. Post-game against WKU, Taggart says that every position needs to be evaluated and mentioned the injury.

In practice Tuesday morning, Perry was participating in drills, which included throwing long passes. Even though he made the throws, it was noticeable to see him in discomfort and work out his shoulder area.

The injury doesn’t seem to be serious as Taggart said on Wednesday that he is good to go for Saturday. He didn’t say who would be starting, but I don’t see this being a story to follow closely, expect Perry to be the starting quarterback in the regular-season finale.

Offensive coordinator Michael Johnson mentioned that one of the unit’s biggest weaknesses has been the inability to finish drives. In his media availability Tuesday, he spoke on finishing drives and the sense of urgency with the offense:

“We moved the ball again (against WKU). We just have to finish drives. We have to go in the red zone and complete the drives that we have. We had opportunities early in the ballgame [at WKU] to score touchdowns and we just didn’t finish. We’ve got to finish the drives that we have and make sure we score touchdowns and not settle for field goals,” Johnson said. “I think the sense of urgency is good. We just have to relax and play with more composure and poise and execute better, especially in those situations where we get down tight. Third down situations, red zone, all of those types of deals when you need to execute. We have to make sure we do those things this week in order to win this game.”

The goal against Middle Tennessee is to find a balance of having an effective passing and running attack. FAU is desperately trying to go back to the beginning of the season where they found success, but as the season went on, it’s been inconsistent. 

Veteran James Charles talks about what he wants to see from the offense and facing the Blue Raiders’ defense.

“I just want to see us have fun and play with confidence and play like we know how to play, and continue to work on the little things and details of the game. No missed assignments. I just want us to play loose, play fast, play fun, and play physical,” Charles said. “They’re going to fly to the ball. They’re a defense that wants to hit you. They want to play physically. They send a lot of pressure, try to get a little exotic with it, try to catch people off guard, try to catch the running back in bad pass protection. I’m expecting all of that. I’m expecting their best and their hardest because they’re in the same position we are. They’re trying to get to that bowl game too for their seniors and their program. I’m expecting a little bit of everything.”

MTSU has allowed 26.6 points per game, 230.1 passing yards per game, and 133.2 rushing yards per game all season. Johnson talks about their defense and what to look out for when the offense is on the field.

“They’re an attacking defense. They play downhill with their linebackers. They move, they stunt, they bring five-man pressures, [and] six-man pressures. They do it on all downs and distances. They don’t like to sit back and just play static,” Johnson said. “This is one of those deals where we’re going to have to be good in our protection schemes, making sure we do what’s necessary to pick up on stuff they do.”

As it looks, if the Owls want to win and be bowl-eligible, they have to restrain from making mistakes on their own part. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve typed that…

DEFENSE

Whereas the offense has been a weak point this season, the defense has been one of the brighter spots this season. 

People should be willing to excuse last week against Western Kentucky as going into the game, they were the fourth-ranked in total offense in the nation. However, the Owls did provide stops that gave the offense a chance to score to keep them in the game. But again, they didn’t capitalize. 

Besides stops, the Owls caused three turnovers, one of them being a pick-six by Teja Young. 

With WKU, the FAU defense focused mostly on Zappe, but against Middle Tennessee, they’re going to have to pay attention as they face two quarterbacks: Nick Vattaito and Mike DiLiello. 

Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops talks about facing the Blue Raiders and their two-quarterback system:

“I think with (quarterback)  one, they lean a little more on quarterback read plays, sweeps, read the quarterback runs. They show up with the other quarterback as well, but he’s more likely to hold the ball more. We have to be prepared for those quarterback-type runs.”

A huge point on defense in stopping any kind of run game would be the linebackers, and FAU is about to get back a significant player at that position. Willie Taggart said Monday and confirmed Wednesday that linebacker Caliph Brice is good to go for Saturday.

In who was arguably FAU’s best player on the defense and of the whole team, this is huge when it comes to the size of the linebackers. Stoops talks about getting Brice back on the team:

“We’ve been getting thinner and thinner. it feels like every week the totality of the snaps is starting to add up. Caliph’s been a big part of what we’ve done for a long time. He brings a presence and physicality. He’s a much bigger linebacker than our other guys. He brings stability to our group, and he’s been a very constant player for us throughout the year. We’ve probably regressed a bit since his absence. He’s been a really good player for us. It’s been tough without him and hopefully, he’ll get some opportunities this weekend.”

Brice was practicing in a limited fashion along with linebacker teammate Akileis Leroy.

While Brice himself hasn’t spoken entirely on it, his tweets can be deduced as showing his excitement since he’ll also be celebrated on senior night. 

For the Middle Tennessee offense, they’ve averaged 30 points per game, 235.3 passing yards per game, and 120.2 rushing yards per game. The last two weeks have been inconsistent for them as they blew FIU out of the water scoring 50, but against Old Dominion last week, they scored 17. 

Zyon Gilbert talks about the defensive adjustments that need to be made from last week into this week. 

“We have to get more turnovers, get the ball back to our offense a little bit more. We just have to hone in on little details. There was a couple of plays that we missed that [WKU] scored on that was just one little mistake.”

Another aspect that FAU wants to put in the spotlight Saturday is the pass rush. Against Western Kentucky, they recorded zero sacks, a statistic that needs to increase in hopes of victory. Head coach Willie Taggart talks about the pass rush:

“It helps when you have a natural pass rusher that can go after the quarterback. If you don’t have that, you have to be creative in creating a pass rush to help your guys. We probably could be a little more creative in doing those things with the guys we have. You’d love to have a Leighton [McCarthy] again. We have some young guys that are probably going to be there one day, just not yet, but they’re working to get that way and they’re getting better with the reps they’re getting.”

Predictions

FAU is on a three-game losing streak, but now it’s do-or-die for the Owls. If they want to send off the seniors in high fashion, they have to play their best game against MTSU and extend their season in a bowl appearance. 

That should be the mindset for the team, but there is still nothing that makes me confident with the team in correcting all of their mistakes, especially on offense. 

It seems like I ask these questions every week, but will the offense limit mistakes? Will they limit the penalties (they had 15 for 139 yards against WKU)? Will they start fast?

While I can’t clearly say “yes,” we should be seeing an improvement from them as they’re back home, where they’ve played much better. Though, it should be another game where the defense has a nice night and gets the much-needed stops and turnovers needed as MTSU’s offense is nothing close to what WKU is. 

All that being said, expect a bounce-back performance here from FAU. I don’t see it being a huge blowout, but I expect the Owls to break their three-game losing skid and earn a bowl game. All for the seniors. 

Final Score Predictions: FAU 31 – MTSU 24

Photo courtesy of FAU Athletics. 

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