If you listen to defensive lineman Imarjaye Albury — which is wise, considering he weighs 280 pounds on a 6-foot frame — Florida Atlantic is arriving on FIU’s campus at the perfect time.
FIU is 0-4, just had its head coach fired and just had its longtime quarterback benched. But all that can be put to the side if the host Panthers can beat their most hated rival on Saturday night.
The winner gets to keep the Shula Bowl trophy for the next year.
“The dislike we have for [FAU], the dislike, they have for us,” Albury said. “If any game can get us back focused on our mission, it would be this one.”
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This is the Conference USA opener for both teams. FAU (1-3) is coming off a 31-27 loss to Ball State in which the Owls blew a three-point lead in the final two minutes.
FIU’s Alex McGough, benched by since-fired coach Ron Turner last week and replaced by Maurice Alexander in a 53-14 home loss to UCF, is expected to get his job back this week under interim coach Ron Cooper.
“For us to be good, [McGough] needs to play [well],” Cooper said.
McGough was told he was benched shortly before the kickoff of the UCF game.
“I was disappointed in myself,” McGough said. “As a quarterback, if you don’t produce, you’re going to lose your job … 0-3, I understood it. I may not have liked it because I want to play. But I’m not going to complain.”
McGough said Cooper has told the entire Panthers team to have “amnesia.”
Forget the 0-4 start.
One thing FIU can’t truly forget, though, is that FAU has won 10 of the 14 matchups between these rivals, who have played every year since their programs began. One of the FIU wins was vacated because of NCAA violations, so FAU officially leads the series 10-3. The Owls also won last year 31-17 at home.
But FIU has won three of the past five matchups, and the Panthers will look for leadership from running back Alex Gardner, who is tied for third in program history with 13 career TDs.
Panthers linebacker Anthony Wint is second in Conference USA in tackles with 10.9 per game. Fellow linebacker Treyvon Williams set his career high last week with three tackles for loss.
In addition, FIU tight end Jonnu Smith’s 36-game streak of catching at least one pass ranks seventh in the nation among active players and is second in FIU history.
The key FAU players on offense are sophomore quarterback Jason Driskel, junior running back Buddy Howell (Coral Gables High) and junior wide receiver Kalib Woods. Howell has scored four touchdowns and averages 79 yards rushing per game. Woods is fifth in the league with 93 receiving yards per game.
But perhaps the most dangerous FAU player wears No. 9 — right defensive end Trey Hendricks, who was second in the nation last year with 13 1/2 sacks. The 6-4, 270-pound senior is FAU’s career leader in sacks ( 21 1/2) and tackles for loss (31).
This season, Hendricks has 1 1/2 sacks and has blocked two field goals.
Blocking Hendricks effectively will be crucial for FIU, but it goes beyond that task.
Albury said the Panthers’ downfall this year has been mental. When FIU falls behind, heads tend to hang low.
“Our response to adversity hasn’t been good,” he said.
Albury, who played at West Virginia before transferring to FIU, said the work the players do here exceeds what was done at his previous university.
“This is the best team I’ve played on in terms of talent,” Albury said. “We’re strong. We don’t get pushed around. But we play tight, not wanting to mess up.
“Coach [Cooper] has told us to play free. He said play with that swag, that swag that got you here. That is what he’s preaching to everybody, and I think you will see that from the whole team against FAU.”