Photo Credit: JC Ridley/FAU Athletics

Florida Atlantic head coach Willie Taggart hasn’t coached in the Shula Bowl yet, but the new FAU head coach understands the circumstances.

“Our players, everyone let me know from day one, it [the Shula Bowl] is one of the most important games on the schedule,” Taggart told the media this week. “It is that game.

“Our guys, I’m just seeing how they were [Monday] in practice and just walking around, they understand the importance of this football game and how locked in everybody has to be. We know that we are going to get their very best. They are talented enough that you can throw the records out when it comes to this game.”

This is simply more than a football game for both sides. The records and whatever happened in previous weeks don’t matter and both sides will be looking to pick up a critical win and rush towards the Shula Bowl Trophy that will stand in the end zone.

FAU has taken the last three Shula Bowl games, winning the games by an average margin of 31 points. The Owls’ record in the series is now 13-5 but even that doesn’t matter when the two teams meet up in Ricardo Silva Stadium and stare each other down.

The situation hasn’t escaped anyone for FAU, even if Florida International will enter Friday night’s game without a win. Defensive back Zyon Gilbert uttered a similar sentiment to Coach Taggart when discussing the Shula Bowl.

“Playing in these rivalry games, you have to throw the records out the window because when it comes to rivalry games, they all intense,” Gilbert told reporters. “Everybody’s locked in, super focused but we look at it as another opportunity. We don’t look at it that we’re playing FIU, we’re playing in the Shula Bowl. We just look at it as another opportunity to get a win.”

Keys to Victory

Get Pressure on the Quarterback: For the first time this season, redshirt freshman Stone Norton earned the outright starting quarterback designation on FIU’s depth chart. With inexperience under center, FAU would be best served to get pressure on Norton and get it often. Look for Jaylen Joyner and Leighton McCarthy to create havoc in FIU’s backfield.

Win the Special Teams Battle: FAU has received strong special teams performance all season and will need it again on Friday. Punter Matt Hayball is coming off a strong performance, where he averaged over 45 yards per punt against Western Kentucky.

Get the Passing Game Going: FAU’s passing game has held the entire offense back, but that can’t happen against FIU. The Panthers’ secondary is allowing 245 passing yards per game over so far, but has only allowed four passing touchdowns.

Players to Watch

Cornerback Romain Mungin: Sophomore cornerback Romain “Smoke” Mungin is still searching for his first interception of the season, though the opportunities have been there. Despite no interception to his name, the Tampa native has been one of FAU’s best defensive players. According to Pro Football Focus, Mungin has allowed 10 receptions on 26 targets.

Running Back Malcolm Davidson: Malcolm Davidson was FAU’s best offensive player in the Shula Bowl last season, plain and simple. Davidson ran wild for 144 yards and three touchdowns in FAU’s 37-7 victory over FIU in 2019. Davidson’s performance earned him the Shula Bowl MVP honors.

Quarterbacks Nick Tronti/Javion Posey: The quarterback competition is open and no one knows who will start for FAU on Friday night. Regardless of who starts for FAU, the quarterback will have to be on top of things and command a struggling offense to eventual scoring.

Numbers to Know

213.3: FIU is allowing 213.3 rushing yards per game, which plays exactly into what FAU likes to do. Keep an eye on running backs James Charles, BJ Emmons, and Malcolm Davidson, who should combine for a strong showing on the ground.

81: Safety Jordan Helm’s Pro Football Focus defense grade of 81 is a team-high. Earlier this week, Helm drew praise from Coach Taggart, who called Helm a quarterback on defense. Taggart also mentioned that he would love to have Helm on his coaching staff in the future.

39.66: FAU is converting on just 39.66% of its third downs this season, further exemplifying the offense’s struggles.