First take: Florida Atlantic

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 20, 2013 

Who: Florida Atlantic (2-5; lost to Marshall 24-23 on Oct. 12 and had open date on Saturday) at No. 11 Auburn (6-1; beat Texas A&M 45-41 on Saturday)

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.


Radio: Auburn IMG Sports Network (WVRK-102.9 FM in Columbus; WGZZ-94.3 FM in Auburn/Opelika)

All-time series: Auburn leads 1-0

When last they met: Florida Atlantic had nothing to be ashamed when it left Jordan-Hare Stadium just two years ago. Yes, Auburn won 30-14, but the Owls made the defending national champion work for it — for at least one half, anyway. The Owls intercepted Tigers quarterback Barrett Trotter on the first play of the contest, converting the turnover into a field goal to take a 3-0 lead at the 11:36 mark of the opening period. Auburn scored 10 straight points, but Florida Atlantic was able to get one more field goal on the board to trail only 10-6 heading into the locker room. Tiger defensive back Jermaine Whitehead effectively sealed the victory for the home team when he stepped in front of a pass from Owl quarterback Graham Wilbert and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown to push their lead to 17-6 with 13:32 to go in the third quarter. The Tigers put 13 more unanswered points on the board in that quarter to take a 30-6 advantage into the final stanza. The Owls scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter, but the game was long decided by then. Though the Tigers came away with the ‘W,’ their offense struggled throughout, gaining just 315 yards, eight more than the Owls (307), a squad that came into the contest averaging just 92.5 yards per game offensively.

Quick facts on Florida Atlantic: Carl Pelini is 5-14 in two seasons as Florida Atlantic's head coach entering this week's contest. FAU is Pelini's first head coaching job at the collegiate level after spending time as an assistant at Nebraska, Ohio and Minnesota State since moving up from the high school ranks in 2003. Prior to that, Pelini served as the head coach at Austintown Fitch High School in Ohio from 2000-02. ... Florida Atlantic is coming off a bye week. The last time the Owls took the field, though, they suffered a disheartening loss. After trailing Marshall 7-3 at halftime, FAU rallied after halftime, staking itself to a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter. The Thundering Herd fought back, though, cutting it to 23-21 heading into its final possession with 2:19 to play. Starting at its own 9-yard line, Marshall put together a drive to get itself in position for a game-winning field goal. Kicker Justin Haig took care of the rest, booting a 41-yard field goal as time expired to spoil a victory in front of the second-largest home crowd in Owls' history.

Which Tiger is primed for a big performance: It might sound like I pick a member of Auburn's backfield in every game. That's not always true, but when a team owns the top rushing attack in the SEC with more than 300 yards per game — 300.1, to be exact — why get overly creative? In doing so, that would only please the inner contrarian in me. I will go in a different direction in at least one way, though. Instead of predicting Tre Mason to have another 100-plus yard outing, I say the coaching staff will give him a short day, especially considering stiffer competition than the Owls lie ahead. So look for Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne to both get close to double-digit carries versus FAU after the two combined for only 11 rushes against Texas A&M.

Which Owl could give the home team fits: Whenever the Tigers elect to take to the air, there's one player they will need to be aware of at all times: D'Joun Frye-Smith. The junior has wreaked havoc in the secondary this season. The Miami native already has four interceptions this season — which is tied for the most in Conference USA — and returned one for a score. Further, he's credited with nine pass breakups, which leaves him alone atop the C-USA. When those two are added together, they comprise the "passes defended" category. There, Frye-Smith also takes first, averaging 1.86 passes defended per game, well outpacing second-place Jordan Batiste of Tulane, who comes in at 1.33. The most surprising aspect of Frye-Smith's success? The fact that it's, well, unexpected. He played in 23 games over the course of the 2011 and 2012 seasons (which included 11 starts last year) and had just one interception.

Extra point: Since capturing bowl victories in consecutive years (2007 and 2008), the Owls have not been back to the postseason. In the past four bowl-less seasons, FAU has posted a 13-35 overall record.

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