Run it or Gun it, Owls Defense Should Sink Division I-AA Wagner

Mohamed Abdihakim

Who: Wagner College
Where:
FAU Football Stadium
When:
Friday, Aug. 31
Radio:
760 AM
Time:
8 p.m.
All-time Series:
0-0
Prediction:
FAU 24-9

 

Christian Grenough, a sophomore exercise science major, spray paints a sign for his fraternity Alpha Tau Omega to be part of the bonfire celebrations. Photo by Michelle Friswell.

The Carl Pelini era is about to begin.

And with new uniforms too.

FAU (1-11 in 2011) starts off the 2012 season against Wagner College (3-7). Kickoff is set for this Friday, Aug. 31, at 8 p.m. in FAU Stadium. The Owls are starting fresh and taking the field for the first time without former head coach Howard Schnellenberger. Not only will this be the first season opener at the stadium, but the team will also unveil its new red alternate jerseys.

FAU is undergoing a drastic change in offensive philosophy, switching from the pro set to the no-huddle spread formation. As of Aug. 23, the starting quarterback has yet to be named. Regardless, offensive coordinator Brian Wright knows what he wants to see out of his eventual starter, whether it’s Graham Wilbert or Stephen Curtis.

“Well, first of all, a guy that makes great decisions and takes care of the ball and make plays,” Wright said.

Wright said in training camp that incumbent Wilbert understood the offense the best. Wilbert had seven touchdowns and 15 interceptions last season.

“We’re looking for someone to take over and become a leader of the offense, we don’t have that right now,” Wright added.

Stephen Curtis said he’ll be ready if his number is called. He started last season as a third-stringer, but worked his way into a backup quaterback by season’s end. Now, he wants the opportunity to work with the first unit.

“When I get my chances,” Curtis said, ”I’m gonna take them.”

Curtis had played in this new offensive system when he was in high school. He’s got the arm and the on-field acumen to make impact plays in the air. An interesting wrinkle in the Owls’ playbook will be Curtis’ option to run the ball. He’s built a little bigger than the other QBs, coming in at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds.

“I mean, yeah,” Curtis said about his mobility being a positive factor. “I’m gonna be running the ball a good bit.”

There could be fits of miscommunication, dropped passes and mental mistakes in week one under the new system. But Wright understands that there’s only one way to win this game — with the basics.

“Just like any team, you gotta go in and execute the fundamentals on offense to have success against anybody,” Wright said. “So we’re gonna be focusing on ourselves and making ourselves as good as we can get, and let the results take care of themselves.”

No matter the solidarity and clear vision from Wright, the matter of choosing a starter is still at hand.

“Our guys have battled like champs at QB, just looking for someone to take it over,” Wright said. “It’s gonna be a very difficult decision.”

Defensively, the Owls don’t see any use in focusing in on the opponent.

“We’re never gonna talk much about our opponent,” defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis said. “We’re gonna worry about what we do.”

The Owls don’t lack respect for their opening day Division I-AA opponent, though, with Curtis noting, “Yeah they’re a good team. We’ve got to take them seriously.”

“Again, it’s all about us. I don’t care if we’re playing Wagner, Middle Tennessee or Alabama, or Georgia. It’s about FAU and what we do,” Rekstis added. “If we compete within our process and play hard, we’ll be able to look at each other after the game and feel good about it. We’re never gonna talk much about our opponent. We’re gonna worry about what we do.”

As far as football programs go, Carl Pelini is used to stepping into difficult situations. In 2008, Pellini inherited a Nebraska defense ranked 112th in the nation. After a few years at the defensive helm, Nebraska had improved to a ranking of seventh in 2009.

FAU’s key to a win here will be their linebacking corps, among the better groups in the conference, from the young Andrae Kirk (87 tackles) to the anchoring experience of seniors David Hinds (110 tackles, two sacks) and Randell Johnson (92 tackles, five sacks, four forced fumbles). The Owls’ defense also looks to put a halt to big-gain plays in the air, opting to start the new season with a 4-3 formation.

Wagner’s passing offense hasn’t improved from last year’s poor stats, finishing the season with just six passing touchdowns (compared to 17 passing touchdowns allowed).

One of the very few bright spots in Wagner’s season last year was a ground game that resulted in 16 rushing touchdowns. Ultimately, this game will be decided between FAU’s solid linebacking crew and Wagner’s decent running game.

“We have to stop the run,” Rekstis said. “Every game is gonna be similar in that we’ll have to stop the run, not give up big explosion plays, and create some take aways. As long as I’ve been coaching, if you do those things, you’ll probably be successful.”

The Owls will win this match-up, though not by as much as you might expect, even if FAU’s switch to a more pass-play friendly system looks precarious initially against Wagner’s defensive backs (11 interceptions, three for touchdowns). Again, stopping Wagner’s running game will be key here. But, on the Owls’ offensive end, look for the ball to be in the air a lot more often in this game and this year.