Football Preview: Owls look to start season on the right foot versus Southern Illinois

FAU will face the Salukis for the first time in program history.

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The American flag stretched across the field in last season's home opener. Max Jackson | Staff Photographer

Hans Belot Jr., Contributing Writer

W

ith two seasons under head coach Charlie Partridge’s belt, and consecutive 3-9 records, the Florida Atlantic football team gears up for what it hopes is a turnaround season, which begins Saturday versus Southern Illinois.

The Owls are 2-7 in their last nine season openers, including last year’s 47-44 overtime loss at the University of Tulsa.

The offseason saw a number of changes for the Owls with a new offensive coordinator in Travis Trickett, a newly named starting quarterback in Jason Driskel and several player changes in both the offense and defense.

Although nothing is guaranteed after one game, Saturday’s first game of the season versus the Southern Illinois Salukis will provide a glimpse of what fans can expect this season.

Trickett is coming from Football Championship Subdivision school Samford University, whose offense he led to almost 35 points per game and 5,300 total yards on the season.

Here’s everything you need to know for the game.

Keys to the game: 

Southern Illinois, out of the Missouri Valley Conference, decided to go in another direction after a subpar 3-8 season last year in former head coach Dale Lennon’s eighth season at the helm. He was replaced by offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Nick Hill.

Despite its record, the Salukis’ offense ranked first in its respective conference, averaging 36.1 points per game.

It also averaged 425.6 yards per game, which ranked second in the Missouri Valley Conference, including 298 passing yards and 199 rushing yards, ranking first and fifth respectively.

Most of the load on offense was carried by former quarterback Mark Iannotti, who led his team in both passing and rushing yards per game, at 290 and 65 yards respectively.

He will be replaced by Josh Straughan, a transfer from Stillman College in Division II, who was named the Salukis’ starting quarterback earlier this month.

However, as great as the offense performed last season, the Salukis’ defense could be pointed at for its rough year. Southern Illinois ranked second to last in scoring defense, second to last in rushing defense, second to last in passing defense and last in takeaways.

Those performers led to the firing of former defensive coordinator David Elson and the hiring of Kraig Paulson. Paulson held the same position at three other schools for 17 seasons before becoming an assistant coach last year at Northern State.

The Owls’ new-look offense will be on display for the first time.

Last year, an offense led by both Driskel and former quarterback Jaquez Johnson could only guide the Owls to a 10th-ranked scoring offense, averaging only 22.5 points per game.

The quarterbacks were limited to 213 passings yards per game, good for ninth in the conference.

The running game, which ranked fifth in Conference USA, often boosted the offense. Returning from that crop is junior Greg Howell and senior Jay Warren, both of whom first led the rushing pack with 608 and 507 rushing yards respectively.

The Owls will miss Trey Rodriguez, who was third on the team in rushing yards despite only playing six games because of injuries and off-the-field issues. Rodriguez was dismissed from the program earlier this year after not living up to the standards set forth by his coach and team.

The defense has also gone several personnel changes, with key backfield players such as Sharrod Neasman and Cre’von LeBlanc among others, departing from the program.

The Owls’ defense ranked in the middle of the pack in Conference USA last season — seventh in rushing defense, sixth in passing defense and sixth in scoring defense.

With a mix of veterans and young players along the defensive unit, the Owls will be looking to climb up those rankings this season.

So, who will win?
First games of the season are always tricky to determine because of the unknown production a team can have after offseason changes.

The Salukis will be looking to build on an offense that was already prominent last season despite losing their starting quarterback.

Although Southern Illinois allowed the fewest amount of sacks in its conference last year, senior defensive end Trey Hendrickson — Conference USA’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year — and his fellow defensive linemen will be looking to make an impact early and often, setting up the back seven to capitalize on any mistakes the quarterback may make.

Defensively, the Salukis will be looking to limit the threat FAU’s running game might pose.

The Owls will have to count on that ground game early and often, setting themselves up to establish the passing game. Their new offense may be tested for the first time, but the old faces will be the difference makers.

The game will kick off at 6 p.m. at FAU Stadium.

Hans Belot Jr. is a contributing writer with the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him at @Don_Phenom_.