Both Florida Atlantic and FIU begin Conference USA play Saturday when they meet in Don Shula Bowl XV. The Panthers will play their first game under interim head coach Ron Cooper as FIU seeks its first win of the season. FAU is 1-3 and looking to keep the Shula Bowl Trophy in Boca Raton for another year after defeating FIU 31-17 last season at FAU Stadium.
When the Panthers and Owls get together you might as well throw the records out the window because strange things happen in this series that will turn 15 years old Saturday. Having been a part of every Shula Bowl since its inception, whether as the Miami Herald FIU writer or now endorsing an FIU check, I can tell you something usually pops up out of the ordinary in the Shula Bowl.
For example, in 2005 FIU tied an NCAA record with four interceptions returned for touchdowns in a 52-6 rout of FAU in Shula Bowl IV. In Shula Bowl VII in 2008, the teams played a double-overtime marathon that FAU won 57-50 and denied FIU its first postseason bowl game. FAU and FIU combined for 1,037 total yards of offense and each team scored 28 points in the fourth quarter alone in that game.
In 2010 at Shula Bowl IX, FIU had the superior team coming into the game but the Owls held the Panthers to three field goals in a 21-9 win. FIU went on to win the Sun Belt Conference title and Little Caesars Pizza Bowl that season. The following season in Shula Bowl X, T.Y. Hilton took a punt from his own 3-yard line 97 yards for a touchdown. And in 2012, Richard Leonard had the first of his two 100-yard returns for a touchdown in the Shula Bowl series. Leonard had another 100-yard score in 2014. FIU won both games that Leonard had those long returns.
Saturday will mark the second Shula Bowl with an interim coach on either side when Cooper leaves the coaches box as the defensive coordinator and moves down to the sidelines. FAU's Brian Wright was an interim head coach in Shula Bowl XII after Carl Pelini was fired on Oct. 30 that year.
While an interim coach in this series is notable it normally wouldn't be a factor in a typical football game. However, this week in practice the Panthers have been working with a renewed energy and there seems to be a different vibe around the team. Part of it from some tweaks to practice that Cooper installed such as stopping practice to have the team run through Oklahoma drills. Not sure how much of it will play out in Saturday's game but don't be surprised if FIU comes out with more of a bounce in its step.
Of course, the Panthers will need more than a bounce in their step to defeat the Owls and bring the Shula Bowl Trophy back to Miami. FIU needs to finally get its offense on track the way its capable of doing. The FAU defense can be attacked for chunks of yards. The Owls are allowing 246 rushing yards per game and 250 yards through the air per contest -- that's 496 yards of offense FAU is allowing per game. FIU running backs Alex Gardner, Anthony Jones and Shawndarrius Phillips, who debuted last week against Central Florida, should have running lanes. Whether it's Alex McGough or Maurice Alexander under center, FIU should be able to throw the ball and have Thomas Owens and/or Jonnu Smith have the 100-yard game each is more than able to collect.
The FIU defense, like FAU, has had its share of issues stopping opposing offenses. The Panthers D is yielding 219 yards on the ground per game and 245 passing yards per game. Those numbers are a little better than FAU but you still could see Shula Bowl XV turn into a basketball game -- last team with the ball wins the game. With Cooper as the interim head coach now, secondary coach Bobby Babich takes over calling the defense. Babich has the defensive play-calling genes in the family, his father, Bob, is a long-time NFL defensive assistant and former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator. Special teams coach Kirk Doll will help out with the linebackers and tight ends coach Jason Brooks helps coach the secondary as a result of the coaching switches. There may be some tweaks to the FIU defense.
The Owls have a pretty good running back in Greg Howell, who has rushed for 304 yards (4.6 yards per carry average) and four touchdowns this season. FAU quarterback Jason Driskel has thrown for 898 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions this season. Driskel is the brother of quarterback Jeff Driskel, who had a terrific game against FIU last season at Louisiana Tech. Driskel's favorite target is Kalib Woods, who has more than double the amount of receptions (23) than any other Owl.
The City of Neon Lights thinks FAU is a John Elway jersey number better than FIU going into Shula Bowl XV. That's not much of a surprise because the Panthers haven't really gotten off to the start many expected. But this is the Shula Bowl so Elway's jersey number and the C.o.N.L. really don't factor into this game.
Weather is not expected to be a problem. As of this writing, the forecast for Saturday's 7 p.m. kickoff is expected to be mostly cloudy with 82 degrees and just a 10 percent chance of rain.