Rarely does the Shula Bowl find the football teams of FIU and FAU in the same place, as does Thursday night’s game on Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium.
Usually, the See-Saw Bowl would be a more descriptive title — one team up, one team down, one rising, one falling. In FAU’s two bowl seasons, 2007 and 2008, FIU went 1-11 then 5-7. Switch the middle vowels and it’s the same story — FIU goes to bowls while FAU goes 4-8 and 1-11. Last year, after 1-11 FIU successfully fought going winless, FAU successfully fought to become bowl-eligible (alas, no bowl invited the Owls to leave the nest).
This year, however, both are 2-3 and 1-0 in Conference USA play. Both suffered an agonizing loss (FIU’s to Bethune-Cookman, FAU’s to Wyoming), blew out an overmatched opponent (FIU over Wagner, FAU over Tulsa) and got routed by established powers (FIU by Louisville, FAU by Alabama and Nebraska). Each got that conference win off upsets, FIU shutting down Alabama-Birmingham 34-20 and FAU coming from 10 points down to upset Larry Coker-coached Texas-San Antonio 41-37.
“They lost a tough game to Wyoming the week before, and I think they were on a mission from God to come home and win this thing,” Coker said in a Monday media session.
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The current Conference USA Defensive Player of the Week, FIU redshirt junior cornerback Richard Leonard, will be a concern for the current Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week, FAU senior quarterback Jaquez Johnson. And vice versa.
Johnson didn’t need to throw for 295 yards and run for 37 on UTSA to get FIU’s attention. All they need to do is roll the tape on last year’s Shula Bowl, when Johnson ran for 64 yards and threw for 218 and three touchdowns in FAU’s 21-6 win.
Johnson moves with more size (6-1, 225) than speed. Then again, mobile quarterbacks don’t have to be the swiftest to give FIU trouble. Pitt’s Chad Voytik, who is far from nimble, rumbled for 114 yards on only 12 carries three weeks ago, most of it off option keepers around the edge.
Last week, against UAB, the Panthers contained quarterback Cody Clements on most of his scrambles and, more importantly, maintained downfield coverage.
“Stay in your coverage lanes, stay in your rush lanes,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “Eyes, eyes, all we talk about are eyes. Eyes are the key to everything. Don’t have your eyes do too much. Be disciplined with your eyes.”
FAU’s eyes saw Leonard run a kickoff back 100 yards on the pivotal play of FIU’s 34-24 Shula Bowl win in 2012.
“Their returner No.3 [Richard Leonard] is scary,” FAU coach Charlie Partridge said in a media session this week.
What’s also scary is fifth-year senior FIU wide receiver Glenn Coleman possibly producing commensurate with his prodigious talent. Coleman’s 12 catches for 250 yards (20.8 per catch) and two touchdowns already equals his previous best season (13 for 227 and two touchdowns in 2012). He got his first start of the season, against UAB, in place of redshirt junior Dominique Rhymes.
The lengths on Coleman’s last four touchdown catches, in chronological order: 25, 33, 57 and 85 yards.
“He missed part of training camp. He missed all of last year,” Turner said. “He was out here practicing, but he missed it as far as being in our offense. It’s different. It takes a while to get back into game shape. After the first couple of games, you could see him playing faster. The first couple of games, he played tentatively. He’s not playing tentatively anymore.”