The annual FIU Panthers-Florida Atlantic Owls football game — a rivalry that will be renewed for the 18th consecutive year Saturday in Boca Raton — is personal for a lot of people, and Noah Curtis feels that more than most.
Curtis is a 6-5, 260-pound junior defensive end at FIU, and his Panthers (5-4, 3-3 Conference USA) would be eliminated from the East Division race if they get beat by FAU (6-3, 4-1).
An FIU win, however, would keep its title hopes alive and make the Panthers bowl eligible for the third straight year.
So, yes, it’s a big game for those reasons, but it’s more than that for Curtis, who grew up in West Palm Beach, which is FAU country. He posted 24 sacks in his final two years at Delray American Heritage, earning first-team all-county status.
Charlie Partridge, now the assistant head coach/defensive line at Pitt, was running the FAU program when his Owls offered Curtis a scholarship in the summer before his breakout junior year.
“FAU was my first offer,” Curtis said. “I love Coach Partridge. He knew I could do big things, but, when he got fired by FAU, they took my offer away.”
On Dec. 12, 2016, FAU replaced Partridge with Lane Kiffin, who was hired about one month after Butch Davis was brought in to coach FIU.
“FAU offered me again (this time with Kiffin), but I wasn’t interested,” Curtis said during FIU’s media day in August. “I don’t like Coach Kiffin – just his style. He’s too outspoken … just his ego.”
There’s no question Kiffin is controversial. Just two weeks ago, he was fined $5,000 by Conference USA after he tweeted a photo depicting three on-field referees as being blind, using seeing-eye dogs and walking sticks.
Fortunately for Curtis, he found a home at FIU, and he remembers exactly how that relationship began.
“One day, my mom told me I had received a call from Coach Davis,” Curtis said. “I called him back so quick.”
Curtis committed the next day, and he has already played 31 games at FIU, becoming an 11-game starter as a sophomore and now topping the depth chart again as a junior.
So far, Curtis has not been a major playmaker, however. He has just one sack and one fumble recovery this season, and the latter happened this past Saturday against Old Dominion.
Davis, who turns 68 on Nov. 17, has yet to beat Kiffin at FAU, going 0-2 and getting outscored by a combined total of 101-38.
Overall this season, the Owls are on a two-game win streak and have been victorious in six of their past seven contests.
FAU won a big road game this past Saturday, knocking off former East Division leader Western Kentucky 35-24.
Now it’s FAU (6-3, 4-1) that leads the East, tied with Marshall, but the comparison between Davis and Kiffin since they both landed at their current jobs is fascinating.
Since Kiffin arrived in Boca, FAU is 22-13.
Since Davis arrived at FIU, he is also 22-13, but the two losses to FAU tip the scales to Kiffin, who also won a Conference USA title in 2017, a feat that has eluded the Panthers.
“It’s a very intense, hard-fought rivalry,” said Curtis, who lives just 40 minutes from FAU’s Boca Raton campus. “I know half the FAU team.
“Losing to them upsets me. But things are going to change this year. Our expectations are high.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ FAU junior linebacker Akileis Leroy is the reigning C-USA Defensive Player of the Week. He earned the honor after posting a career-high 12 tackles along with two sacks and a forced fumble against WKU.
▪ FAU sophomore quarterback Chris Robinson ranks second in the league in yards (2,339) and TD passes (17). He is fourth in completion percentage (63.3) and has been intercepted four times.
▪ By comparison, FIU senior quarterback James Morgan, who was C-USA’s Newcomer of the Year last season, has thrown for 1,685 yards and 10 TDs, completing 59.5 percent. He has only been intercepted twice, a league-best mark.
▪ FAU senior Harrison Bryant has 44 catches and is the No. 1 tight end in the league in receiving yards (651).