Craig Has The Scout - Florida Atlantic
Three more "this is written by Craig, not Robert" intros to write. The revised website goes up October 8th no matter what, and once that goes up, Craig will have the ability to publish his own articles under his byline again. Which means I won't have to say "it might say Robert as the author over there, but this was written by Craig."
It might say Robert as the author over there, but this was written by Craig. Here it is:
Who: Florida Atlantic Owls
When: 2:30 pm - September 23rd, 2023
Where: Home Sweet Home
Head Coach: Tom Herman. Herman had a meteoric rise up the coaching ladder, and a tremendous crash after being fired by Texas. He spent a year with the Bears (2021) before being out of coaching last season. He was hired by Florida Atlantic to replace a completely ineffective Willie Taggart. Herman is hoping to use the Owls as a springboard back into big time coaching following the Lane Kiffin example. He brings his run first offense offense to Boca Raton and the American Athletic Conference. Herman was a dynamo recruiting in his younger days, and should be able to rebuild the roster and be a force in conference.
Offensive Style: Run first Spread Option utilizing Pistol. Charlie Frye is the OC for Herman, and has an interesting pedigree. Frye was hired by Jim McElwain as his OC at Central Michigan back in 2019. McElwain brought him in from D-II Ashland University due his recruiting prowess and connections. Frye then moved to the NFL with the Dolphins for a year before moving down the road with Herman. Frye is still there for his recruiting, but has brought slightly more passing to the Tom Herman offense.
Defensive Style: 4-2-5 pattern match Cover 4. Roc Bellantoni is the DC, and has some familiarity with Illinois. He was the DL and then DC for Eastern Illinois under Bob Spoo until Spoo's tenure ended in 2011. He bounced around some after that, including a stint as the DC at Florida Atlantic under Charlie Partridge. Partridge coached with Bellantoni at Eastern Illinois (and Bielema at Arkansas). He runs a defense closest resembling the Narduzzi 4-2-5 Cover 4. Bellantoni is playing without a full complement of defenders for his scheme, especially along the DL.
Specialists: The Owls' special teams units are not kicking off the season well according to NERDstats. The one thing they have going though is a dangerous punt returner in LaJohntay Wester. Wester is 5'9" and weighs 165 soaking wet. If he gets the edge though, he can flip the field. He has two 25+ yard returns so far this season.
2023 Florida Atlantic at a Glance:
2023 Record: 1-2, 0-0
Rushing Offense: 100.3 ypg
Passing Offense: 223.3 ypg
Total Offense: 323.7 ypg
Scoring Offense: 22.0 ppg
Rushing Defense: 142.0 ypg
Pass Defense: 218.7.0 ypg
Total Defense: 360.7 ypg
Scoring Defense: 28.3 ppg
Turnover Margin: -3
Three Things to Watch
Florida Atlantic sacks. Florida Atlantic lacks a pass rush. They have logged a single sack in their three games. The Illini have allowed 11 sacks so far through three games. I believe Illinois can hold up against the FAU pass rush, but if the Owls are logging sacks it will be a long day.
Florida Atlantic Interceptions. Illinois averaged almost two picks a game last season. They have two so far this season. Casey Thompson is out for the season for the Owls, and Daniel Richardson appears to be taking over. Richardson transferred in from Central Michigan (he was recruited there by one Charlie Frye). Richardson in the MAC was efficient with the ball, but doesn't have a drive on his passes.
Illini rushing yards. In their two losses, FAU has allowed 150 rushing yards. When opponents are able to run the ball, the anemic pass rush becomes even less potent.
Scouting Review - Offense
Charlie Frye's FAU offense looks slightly different than the Tom Herman offense at Ohio State. The Owls do not run the quarterback near as much, and have attached RPOs to most of the run concepts Herman used previously. With Casey Thompson, Herman had a decent runner at QB set to run his offense. With the loss of Thompson, Frye will lean on more RPO concepts and the QB is focused more on the passing game vs. being an integral part of the run game.
The offense has struggled to get going, and the loss of Thompson won't help the situation. Ohio held the Owls to 10 points. They didn't have their top back against Clemson, and are relegated to trying break big plays with Weston. The OL is not giving the protection needed to break many of the plays.
Under normal circumstances, FAU would want to shorten the game to try and look for the Illini to generate a turnover that allowed the Owls to take advantage. I suspect with Richardson now under center the Owls will run more tempo to keep the Illini in more base defensive looks. The other wrinkle will be a ton of motion. Illinois struggled with it against the more wide open offenses of Toledo and Kansas. It also helps get Wester into space.
The baseline of the offensive blocking scheme is inside zone. The inside zone run play helps the OL, which is beefy but not agile. The core play of the scheme is the read-option zone. The read-option is primarily a mechanism for a run play.
There is nothing fun about this play, which would allow the Illini to pin their ears and shut down this type of play. Instead of using this base look, the Owls will add a wrinkle, the jet motion. Here is the play as an RPO layout with the motion.
The motion across the formation bounced the safeties on the backend, and froze the playside STAR long enough to get yards. The Owls will mix up the motion as well, also using Orbit motion.
The motion will put pressure on the offense, opening up another run style option, the pop pass.
This is a glorified run play, and allows Wester to be at full speed attacking the edge, and freezes the Illini edge defenders. The formation in this case left the field side open with no receiver. The Illini man-defense will make them susceptible to this play. If Frye doesn't run a version of this in the first drive, he's not scripting plays correctly. The other option out of this look FAU will add is the RPO off the motion.
This is the play I would build towards if I was calling plays for FAU. Establishing the bona fides of the run game showing motion should get the Illini defenders cheating. Once the plays are established, this type of play should allow the Owls to break behind the Illini ILBs. With Richardson, they will layer in a play-action pass to the scheme as well.
The Owls attack the middle of the field often. The Illini single-high safety defense creates some great opportunities for picks, but if the safeties are not disciplined these are big plays for the Owls.
The zone blocking scheme does have the standard inside zone run play. Illinois was able to generate pressure up the middle last week, so this play will be used to give the backs options. Which is a good time to mention the injured stable of running backs for the Owls. The top back, Larry McCammon III was unable to play against Clemson. His backups, Stewart and Mobley have both been dinged up as well. If they are all still struggling to go full tilt, the passing attack will be leaned on more.
The OL will have a challenge against the Illini DL, and I expect them to run this tight towards Daxon.
The Owls also have some gap blocking plays, with the primary look being a Power or Trap block. Here is the center pulling against the 4-man front of Monmouth.
If Illinois can't generate more penetration than this, they should expect to see a similar look. If the Illini are able to win at the point of attack, it will look more like this.
The difference between the last two clips is why the Owls need to get the Illini into a read a react mode. Penetration similar to what Illinois did against Penn State will eliminate the run threat of the Owls and put the game on Richardson to win alone. That is a path to defeat for the Owls.
A few pass plays the Owls can find success with are those that attack the Illini behind the ILB. The Owls run a lot of mesh concepts, which Illinois has defended well. The other option will be to attack the perimeter with back to put the LBs on an island. The Owls pull the H-back in Wham blocking often. Here is a wrinkle off that look.
The H-back flat route was thrown by the QB due to the pressure. The play they wanted to break was Wester on the Wheel route on the near side.
The offense for FAU was middling before Thompson was injured. With a their top QB out, an injured running back trio, and missing their #2 receiver it should regress. The Owls do not possess the mobile QB of Kansas or Toledo, so that is not a facet of the game they can exploit. FAU will need to find new gaps in the Illini defense to score. Additionally, they need a lot of help from the defense to give them field position to have easy opportunities to score.
Scouting Review - Defense
Roc Bellantoni is an interesting choice as DC for the Owls. Bellantoni has coached with some very respected coaches, but has never been distinguished as a coach. The rest of the FAU staff is known as top-flight recruiters. The last time he was at FAU, it was with the recruiting staff of Charlie Partridge. The talent acquisition worked well for FAU but not Partridge. Partridge was fired but left behind a staff Lane Kiffin turned into conference champions. With Bellantoni Herman committed to a solid DC who can teach a scheme, but is lacking the athletes to lock down opponents. This might be Herman's Achilles Heel, he had Todd Orlando at Houston and Texas after all. He did turn the page on Orlando though, he was the DC at FAU last season.
Bellantoni's scheme requires good safety play and a strong pass rush. He is currently missing both. Going into the season, the belief was the DL was solid. So far this season the Owls have been unable to generate much of a pass rush. They have picked off three passes so far, two by LBs and one by a CB. They need the safeties to step up for the balance of the season. As Bellantoni has taken over, the defense is playing very defined Cover 4 zones. The safeties both tend to bail to the sidelines on the snap, leaving the middle of the field open.
To counter leaving the middle of the field open, the Owls mixed in Cover 3 against Ohio. Here is the look against Ohio.
The Owls do a really nice job dropping into their defined zones. They do a nice job hitting their zone and covering the Bobcat receivers. This allowed the QB to gain positive yards when the pass rush didn't get home. The Illini need to keep the pocket this clean for Altmyer. Against the run, the Owls are also assignment sound.
The Owls do some line stunting back into the A-gaps to keep the LBs clean. The defense is a single-gap defense, and gap discipline is high among the defense. The primary issue is an inability to win a man on man battle.
The only interesting defensive wrinkle I have seen from FAU is a using a zone blitz, dropping a DE as a spy while blitzing the STAR.
The Bellantoni defense would be rock solid if the talent level was there. It currently is not, and they didn't bring in enough talent via the portal to get it there. The Illini will have to be assignment sound to win the game, but the talent differential is pretty big in favor of Illinois along the lines. Defenses dropping into quick and defined zones should allow Bryant and Wiliams to clip off yards on slants, opening up the middle for the TEs. Here's hoping Lunney is able to exploit it.
What does it mean?
Tom Herman returned a majority of his production from Taggart's last team. The issue is that Taggart was fired for not performing. Herman was looking to add a few high quality transfers to the team and deliver results. So far it has not come to fruition.
The FAU offense is struggling to build and sustain drives. Their drive efficiency is among the worst in the country. Without a bona fide weapon to grind out yards, the offense will have to create confusion to open up the defense to provide easy throws for Richardson. The Illini back seven have struggled in the short zones which is what FAU will have to exploit.
Defensively, the Owls are struggling to generate a pass rush. The back seven have done a decent job of defending, but the time afforded to opposing QBs has allowed for easy throws or open running lanes for the QB. Illinois has struggled with the OL in pass defense, but if they can hold up the slant routes and post passing down the middle will allow Illinois opportunities to break plays. Here's hoping for the Griffin Moore game.
For Illinois to Win:
Florida Atlantic has had issues stopping opposing rushing offenses. It's time for Bart Miller to earn his money and the OL to begin making a difference. Love has been able to find gaps in opposing defenses, and this should be a breakout game for him. Altmyer hopefully gives up the turnover bug, the Owls are solid on defense but are predictable in their pass defense.
The Owls offense has been a struggle, and their top weapons are injured. The lack of options and a QB who will be starting his first game for the Owls on the road.
For Florida Atlantic to Win:
The Owls need Illinois to continue their turnover issues. The Illini offense hasn't been able to gain traction yet, and FAU needs to keep it that way. Lunney called a decent game last week, but the self inflicted wounds were too much to overcome.
Offensively, FAU needs to find and exploit Illinois issues in pass defense. The FAU run game will struggle with the emergence of the Illini DL back to form. That will require them to keep the Illini DL in a read and react mode, so expect more side to side running, and more gimmicks to and eye candy to challenge the Illini LBs.
If FAU can keep Illinois off-balance, and force them into more passing situations, they have a chance to win. They need to score early and be playing with a lead negating some of the Illini athleticism up front. The FAU OL is big, similar to Toledo, which caused problems for the Illini. They need to do the same this week. They will need to find ways to make up for the lost running threat of Thompson, which should mean more pop passes and motion across the formation trying to create lanes.
This is the easiest game in the Illini non-con schedule. The Owls are very experienced, but the injury bug is taking away some of their best weapons. Illinois should be able to isolate and cover the playmakers. If they can keep the QB bottled up, they should stop the Owl offense. I don't see FAU scoring enough to cover this. I'll take the Illini to cover.
Craig YTD Against the Spread: