7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Florida Atlantic -22, Over/Under: 64.5
It’s a second generation bowl of sorts, as two Head Coaches who are also the sons of legendary figures in the game’s history square off as the Florida Atlantic Owls battle the Akron Zips in the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl, in what is basically a home game for the former at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Florida. Coached by Terry Bowden, the son of Hall of Famer Bobby, who led Florida State to a pair of National Championships, looks to guide Akron (7-6, 6-3 in MAC) to their second 8-Win Campaign since taking over a 1-11 Program back in 2012. This is a case where the record doesn’t tell the whole story, for Bowden has really done a remarkable job with the Zips, who went a combined 2-22 in the previous two seasons before his arrival, with the former Auburn leading man taking them to their first and only victory in a Bowl two years ago in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Overcoming a disappointing 1-3 start, the eventual MAC East Division Champions would go on to win six of their final eight outings to become Bowl Eligible, before getting their doors blown off by an 11-2 Toledo team in the Mid-American Conference Title Game. Serving as a microcosm of their season, a slow start ultimately killed Bowden’s charges, who trailed 28-0 at Halftime, and 38-0 before finally getting on the scoreboard late in the third stanza. However, a flurry of scores proved to be a case of too little, too late for the Zips who were defeated in the 45-28 debacle. As has been the case throughout the term, they were absolutely overwhelmed Defensively, with the Rockets rolling up 561 Total Yards of Offense, including 254 of the rushing variety and another 307 through the air, despite forcing a staggering Five Turnovers on the day. This time, the Takeaways couldn’t bail them out, for on the season this unit has ranked second in the country in Interceptions with Nineteen, returning four of them for Touchdowns, while sporting a healthy Turnover Differential (Plus-10), which has really helped them out in the Red Zone, where opponents have scored on jut 78% of their opportunities. Safety Jordan George (67 TKL, 3.0 TFL, 5 INT, 3 PD, 1 FF) and Linebacker Ulysees Gilbert (127 TKL, 8.5 TFL, 4.0 SK, 3 INT, 1 TD, 4 PD, 1 FR) have been the most opportunistic of their number, combining for nine of the team’s Twenty-Seven Takeaways. That’s gone a long way towards helping them make up for the 432.3 Total Yards they’ve allowed on average this year, with opponents really taking them to task on the ground, rushing for 196.7 Yards on 5.0 Yards per Carry. It would also help if they had received some more help form the Offense, which has sputtered throughout, despite Bowden making a number of changes at the Quarterback position. Senior Thomas Woodson (57.2%, 1,777 YDS, 6.4 Y/A, 14 TD, 9 INT) saw the majority of the action this season, before ultimately losing his job to Redshirt Freshman Kato Nelson (48.8%, 909 YDS, 7.3 Y/A, 8 TD, 2 INT), who led them to Bowl Eligibility and the MAC Title Game in the final two outings. Though both signal-callers saw reps in the loss to Toledo, expect Nelson to receive the bulk of the snaps against Florida Atlantic, for between the two, he was far more productive than his upperclassman comrade. Woodson struggled immensely, completing just 5-of-14 Passes for Thirty-Five Yards and an Interception, while Nelson (8-of-18, 177 YDS, 2 TD) led them on three consecutive scoring drives before being taken out in favor of Bobbie Kelley (55.0%, 182 YDS, 9.1 Y/A, 2 TD) late in the Fourth Quarter, who connected on 5-of-9 Attempts for Seventy-One Yards and a Touchdown. Expect Bowden to continue to go with Nelson, who is much more athletic than his other two teammates, rushing for 177 Yards and a Touchdown on Eighty-One Carries, bringing another element to the Backfield, which hasn’t been the most productive area of the team, with the Zips averaging just 108.5 Yards via the Run on an uninspiring 3.3 Yards per Carry. It’s been a committee-like approach for Akron , with three different Tailbacks receiving at least Eighty Carries, with Manny Morgan (99 CAR, 393 YDS, 4 TD), Van Edwards (94 CAR, 348 YDS, 2 TD), and Warren Ball (75 CAR, 342 YDS, 4 TD) each failing to impress. If they can establish some balance Offensively, look for Kwadarrius Smith (33 REC, 719 YDS, 7 TD) to be a threat in the vertical passing game, for the Junior has really come on late this season averaging a mighty healthy 21.8 Yards per Reception, while amassing a prolific 239 Yards and Three Touchdown on just Five Catches over the last two games alone.
Meanwhile, the long strange voyage of Lane Kiffin continues at Florida Atlantic (10-3, 9-0 in Conference USA), where in just his first year as Head Coach has guided the Program to their first Conference USA Championship. The son of longtime Defensive Mastermind Monte, Lane arrived in Boca Raton this time a year ago after a largely successful 3-Year Stint as Alabama’s Offensive Coordinator, helping the Tide capture the 2015 National Championship. Of course, the guy has been around the block quite a bit, with Head Coaching gigs with everyone from the Oakland Raiders, to the Universities of Tennessee and Southern California, each to varying degrees of success, making it mildly surprising that some with such experience at some of the most prestigious jobs in the sport would take an equivalent position at a program such as Florida Atlantic. After all, the Owls have only been a formal Program for fourteen years, with only three winning seasons and a pair of Bowl Games on their ledger, with their last appearance being in 2008. Many felt that Kiffin was simply looking for an opportunity to rehab his image, which had been damaged a bit after his last stint with USC, and while that may end up being the case, the University has recently exhibited their satisfaction the direction of Program, rewarding him with a lucrative 10-Year Contract Extension worth $. Merry Christmas indeed, Lane. Anyways, Kiffin has quickly molded the Owls into an offensive juggernaut, with his charges averaging a prolific 39.8 Points (9th Overall) on a whopping 491.8 Total Yards, including 208.7 Yards through the air and another 283.1 Yards on the ground, where they have proven to be very explosive, racking up a healthy 6.1 Yards per Carry. Devin Singletary (275 CAR, 1,794 YDS, 29 TD) has been a machine in the Backfield, leading Conference USA in rushing with 1,794 Yards, and the entire nation with Twenty-Nine Touchdowns (which happens to be an FBS Record), en route to claiming the conference’s Most Valuable Player Award. However, there is no shortage of talent apart from the Sophomore in the Owls’ Backfield, with the likes of Greg Howell (103 CAR, 690 YDS, 5 TD), Kerrith Whyte (50 CAR, 312 YDS, 2 TD), and John Franklin (16 CAR, 229 YDS, 2 TD) each proving to be productive when given the opportunity. And then there is Jason Driskel (65.6%, 1,977 YDS, 7.8 Y/A, 13 TD, 4 INT), who in his third year with the Program, has flourished in his first term under Kiffin, showing dramatic improvement across the board; after a largely forgettable Sophomore campaign, the Quarterback has shown much better decision-making skills, tossing Thirteen Touchdowns in comparison to Four Interceptions in 2017, a stark contrast from the Twelve Touchdowns and Fifteen Interceptions he totaled in his two previous seasons in Boca Raton. Of course, playing in such a run-heavy scheme certainly makes it easier on a Quarterback, but Driskel has also shown the ability to make plenty of plays with his feet, contributing to the Rushing Attack with 360 Yards and another Six Touchdowns on Seventy-One Carries. This kid has been quite a story this year, opening the season as the team’s Third Quarterback on the Depth Chart, before Kiffin ultimately decided to reinstate him as the starter following a disappointing 1-2 start. Needless to say, it clearly worked out, for Florida Atlantic are carrying a 9-Game Winning Streak heading into tonight’s contest. Defensively, he’s decided to keep things in the family, employing his father as the Defensive Coordinator, which despite giving up a sieve-like 408.3 Total Yards per Game, has relinquished a far more manageable 24.2 Points (44th Overall) on the strength of Twenty-Six Takeaways, including Twenty Interceptions. Like their opponent tonight, the Owls have been very opportunistic on this side of the ball, with three different players logging at least Four Interceptions, led by Junior Safety Jalen Young (70 TKL, 2.0 TFL, 7 INT, 1 PD, 1 FF), who has totaled Conference USA-best Seven Interceptions.