The question was simple and straight forward, and potentially loaded: Is FAU a bowl team this year?
So was the answer.
“Yes,” FAU coach Charlie Partridge said.
It wasn’t too long ago that FAU appeared to be building a perennial bowl contender.
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With Howard Schnellenberger proclaiming to anyone who would listen that the Owls were on a “collision course with the national championship,” FAU won bowl games in 2007 and 2008 shortly after moving up to the FBS level.
After the 2008 Motor City Bowl victory, the Owls’ course took a detour. FAU managed six wins in a season only once since then – and that was the year it fired coach Carl Pelini in the middle of the season amid drug accusations. Though eligible that year, FAU did not receive a bowl invitation.
Last season, Partridge’s first as a head coach, FAU showed flashes of growth but still managed only a 3-9 record in large part because FAU didn’t perform well late in games.
Partridgesaid the Owls might have won those games had he been a more experienced head coach.
“I hadn’t done it,” Partridge said. “I hadn’t been in a position where I was making fourth-down decisions. … You think about those situations all the time but the reality is, experience helps.”
Like many coaches across multiple sports, Partridge is turning to the field of analytics for a edge.
During the offseason he and his staff, with the help of a consulting firm, have crunched the numbers in search of the best probability for successful outcomes to plays, series, and drives.
“If their offense is this powerful and we’re this powerful and the point spread is this and it’s the third quarter, what should you do?” Partridge said. “There will be some more forward thinking and more forward preparation with me involved so that we are ahead of the head coach decisions.”
Other changes to Partridge’s approach were readily apparent during fall camp. He had a tent installed between the practice fields in an effort to keep players fresh for the start of the season. The Owls emphasized proper nutrition and hydration practices for players.
Players are noticing a difference in Partridge’s approach.
“He’s more relaxed. He trusts us enough to go out on the field and do our own thing and get the job done,” junior running back Jay Warren said. “I feel like he’s at that point where he believes in this team and that he knows we are going to go out there and get it done this year.”
Warren, along with sophomore Buddy Howell, will head a potent running attack able to punish defenses with power and speed. Wide receiver Jenson Stoshak does pretty much everything well while Kalib Woods shows the kind of athleticism and pass catching ability not often seen in Conference USA.
But it’s quarterback Quez Johnson who will make the Owls go. Entering his third year as a starter, Johnson will be charged with making an offense that looked spectacular at times, then sputtered at others last season, run more consistently.
“His three years of experience are certainly showing up right now and his competitive nature puts him in position where he studies it hard,” Partridge said. “His football IQ is high.”
FAU’s offense will have to perform near its peak early in the season to give its young defense a chance to gain some experience. The Owls are deep along the defensive line, but may need to rely on some true freshmen at linebacker and defensive back.
Better use of analytics can help the Owls improve, but they can only take FAU so far.
“At the end of the day, you know what I love about football?” Partridge asked. “It comes down to the same stuff. It really does. Protect the football, get some takeaways, stop the big plays, make a block, beat a block. (Analytics) is very important, no question, and that’s my role, but getting better at all those things makes those decisions a lot easier.”