WyoSports senior editor Robert Gagliardi did a question-and-answer swap with Cyrus Smith, who covers Florida Atlantic football for the website fauowlsnest.com, about Saturday’s game with the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
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Look for Q&As with beat writers that cover UW football opponents every week throughout the season.
After road losses to Nebraska and Alabama to start the season, Florida Atlantic looked impressive in a 50-21 home win over Tulsa last week. What came together for the Owls and was that performance what most fans expect from the team this season?
Essentially, FAU played with a sense of urgency. After winning the last four games to end last year a lot of momentum was built for the next season for a potential Conference USA title run and bowl bid. Although many didn’t expect the Owls to win either of the games, the fan base definitely expected a better showing. The offensive performance was what the fans expected for the year. It also helped that FAU played a team that didn’t have a roster full of NFL players.
Quarterback Jaquez Johnson had a big game against Tulsa with 318 yards and three touchdowns in three quarters. Is he the guy that makes the offense go, and if so, what does he do to make that happen?
His versatility as a dual-threat quarterback makes this offense capable of putting up big numbers, but his ability to stay away from turnovers and negative plays is where his value can’t be unmatched. With this being his second year with offensive coordinator Brian Wright, he seems more comfortable taking shots downfield. Against Tulsa, Johnson completed two passes over 50 yards for touchdowns. If Johnson and the Owls are getting big gains through the air, FAU’s offense will be hard to stop.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Owls’ defense, and do you have a good gauge yet of how effective that group can be this season after three games?
The strength is a veteran secondary, although injuries have forced a few freshman to play. Senior D’Joun Smith leading the way. Last year he finished third in the nation with seven interceptions. After a quiet first game and missing the second one due to injury, Smith returned an interception for a touchdown and recovered a fumble. The weakness seems to be the rushing defense. The potential for the defensive line is there as starters Brandin Bryant and Trevon Cooley both had their best games of the year last week.
What is different around the team and program — good or bad — with first-year coach Charlie Partridge?
He has preached a “Win The Day” mentality and the players have bought in. The team seems a lot more relaxed. Partridge is a south Florida native and seems to really connect with the FAU fan base, something former head coach Carl Pelini never seemed to do. Overall, the fan base believes Partridge is the guy to take FAU to the next level.
How do you see Saturday’s game at Wyoming unfolding and what is your predicted final score?
If Wyoming holds the Owls under 20 points I believe Wyoming will win the game. The game will be determined when Wyoming has the ball. I see FAU coming out a little slow. Eventually the Owls will settle down, with the defense making enough stops and forcing Colby Kirkegaard to beat them through the air. Johnson will make enough plays on the ground and through the air to grind out a 23-13 win.
Gagliardi’s answers to Smith’s questions:
Similar to FAU, Wyoming is also playing under a first year coach as Craig Bohl replaces the colorful Dave Christensen. However unlike Charlie Partridge, Bohl had prior head coaching experience at North Dakota State. How was the hire viewed by the Wyoming fan base?
Bohl received positive reviews from the Wyoming fans based on his success and North Dakota State and what he wanted to bring to Wyoming in terms of having a tough, physical and hard-nosed team that defines a lot of the people and fans in the state. Some of those results are being shown on the field, but fans also like how Bohl and his staff have developed players in the short time they’ve been here, and how genuine he is to be at Wyoming.
Bohl is replacing highly-regarded offensive guru Dave Christensen. After guiding the Cowboys to a New Mexico Bowl win and getting them there two years later, it seemed like he was building a foundation. What inspired Wyoming to go in a different direction?
Fans began to lose interest in the program, and after five years the consistency of the program wasn’t there. Yes, there were two bowl appearances, but there also was three losing seasons. Based on those factors, the administration made a change, and felt like it needed to.
After dynamic quarterback Brett Smith’s decision to enter the draft as well as Christensen’s exit, the Cowboys have struggled on offense averaging 16 points per game. How much is that on replacing a dynamic player in Smith and/or Bohl not getting in his players that fit his offensive scheme?
A combination of both. Not only did Wyoming lose Smith, but the projected backup — redshirt sophomore Jason Thompson — transferred to Utah where Christensen is now the offensive coordinator. The most experienced quarterback is senior Colby Kirkegaard, who redshirted last season and was fourth string. He had made only one start prior to this season. Plus, Wyoming is making the transition from a spread offense to a pro-style scheme that emphasizes a power run game, clock management, etc. That has been a big transition from previous years, and is still a work in progress.
Coming into the season the defense was a huge question mark. However, through three games the defense has played well, allowing 12.5 points per game in wins against Air Force and Montana while shutting out Oregon in the first quarter last game – something that’s only happened four times since 2011 to the Ducks – before falling 48-14. What has triggered the significant improvement early in the season?
A belief in the schemes that defensive coordinator Steve Stanard and the rest of the staff are using. And, Wyoming returned nine starters from last year on defense, and nine of the 11 starters right now are seniors. A lot of these guys have played a lot of football and want to be good. They have bought into the system and running it fairly well so far.
After last week’s display in which FAU scored 50 points while gaining 518 yards of total offense against Tulsa, the Owl fan base believes the team will utilize their speed to exploit Cowboy defenders in space en route to a similar output. Do the Cowboys have enough athletes on defense to contain FAU’s spread offense and keep speedsters such as Lucky Whitehead from breaking big gains, and how much of last week’s game against Oregon’s dynamic spread attack has prepped them for a similar offense in FAU?
I think the key to that for Wyoming is to be disruptive on defense and not allow quarterback Jaquez Johnson to get into a rhythm. Wyoming didn’t stop Oregon at all last week, but it also didn’t allow a lot of huge plays in the pass game. I don’t think the Cowboys want to get in a one-on-one battle athletically with the Owls, but they do want to be as disruptive as they can be with all 11 guys.
Although the Owl fan base is really ecstatic about last week’s performance and are fairly confident entering this week’s game, many are worried about the adjustment FAU players will have to make in playing in elevation as Laramie is about 7,200 above sea level. Something a majority of the FAU players will be experiencing for the first time. How much of a home field advantage does Wyoming have at War Memorial Stadium and how much will the elevation impact FAU?
It definitely can be an advantage, but it also can be more of a mental game. If players and coaches get caught up in that, then it will be a factor. But over the years, teams have come to Laramie and won and those teams were focused on execution and winning, not the altitude. But when the going gets tough and teams start to press, the altitude can play a factor, no doubt.
What type of offense do the Cowboys run? Who are the key players Owl fans should look out for when Wyoming has the ball?
Wyoming runs a pro-style/West Coast offense. It has two solid running backs in junior Shaun Wick and sophomore D.J. May that complement each other well. It also has a veteran receiving corps, led by seniors Dominic Rufran and Jalen Claiborne who have combined for more than 3,000 yards and nearly 30 touchdowns in their careers.
What type of schemes Bohl has implemented in the Cowboy defense? Who are the players Owl fans should keep an eye on when the Owls have the ball?
The Cowboys run a 4-3. Junior defensive end Eddie Yarbrough anchors the line. He was an All-Mountain West pick last season and a preseason selection this season. Wyoming starts three senior linebackers who are all solid, led by Mark Nzeocha on the outside. The secondary has experience, but has had its ups and downs. Senior free safety Darren White is a team captain and senior cornerback Blair Burns has played since he was a true freshman.
In a close game, special teams can play a crucial role in determining who earns the victory. FAU’s Lucky Whitehead has been electric during kickoffs and punt returns, averaging 27 yards per kickoff return this year, while returning his only punt for 39 yards last week against Tulsa. The kicking game however, remains a mixed bag as Greg Joseph is 2-4 on the year. How has Wyoming performed on special teams this year?
Special teams have been decent. Wyoming senior kicker Stuart Williams has made both of his field-goal attempts. Sophomore punter Ethan Wood is among the top 50 in net punting in the nation. Wyoming has not shown a lot in the return game, but Claiborne is a dangerous guy once he gets in space.
Prediction Time. Wyoming wins the game if… FAU wins the game if…
Wyoming wins if it can control the tempo, the clock and can wear down Florida Atlantic in the end.
Florida Atlantic wins if it can keep Wyoming off-balance on offense and stops the Cowboys’ run game.