FAU Not Overlooking Winless Southern Miss
By Peter Burke
So far, so good for Florida Atlantic University under interim head coach Brian Wright.
The Owls (3-6, 2-4 Conference USA) upset Tulane, 34-17, in their Nov. 2 homecoming game, just three days after Carl Pelini resigned amid allegations of illegal drug use.
"We adjusted to the coaching change very good," junior cornerback D'Juan Smith told Football.com. "We came back and had one of the best practices that we ever had."
Smith said the preparation was what helped FAU overcome a 17-7 halftime deficit. The Owls intercepted Tulane on four consecutive possessions in the second half, highlighted by Smith's three picks.
"We went back out in the second half and played lights out on both sides of the ball," Smith said.
Now, FAU hits the road this Saturday for the first time since Wright took over to face lowly Southern Miss, which hasn't won a game since capping off a 12-2 season with a 24-17 victory over Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl in December 2011.
FAU, which hasn't had a winning season since 2008, isn't often favored. This week, however, the Owls are a 17.5-point favorite against Southern Miss.
Despite the two-touchdown spread, Smith said the team remains focused on improving.
"We're not even thinking about Southern Miss," Smith said Monday. "We're thinking about tomorrow's practice."
Smith called the Golden Eagles (0-9, 0-5 C-USA) "a dangerous team" with "nothing to lose."
During his weekly news conference Monday, Wright echoed his star player's sentiments, telling reporters that Southern Miss concerns him.
"If you look at them on film, you would never think their record is what it is," Wright said. "They are a program that has a lot of tradition. They play better at home. They fly around. They play aggressive. They played Louisiana Tech very well last week. I was really impressed with how hard they came out and played."
A victory for FAU would keep alive its hopes of becoming bowl eligible. The combined record of FAU's remaining opponents is 2-26.
Wright, who was hired by Pelini to be FAU's offensive coordinator, said he's treating each game as an audition to win the job permanently. He's already left his stamp on the program by removing the names from the back of the jerseys.
After Wright announced that he was scrapping the names, it was Smith who came up with the idea of adding the words "FAU" to the back of the jerseys instead.
"That means we're playing for more than just I," Smith said. "We're playing for him. We're playing for the people in the stands. We're playing for the alumni. We're playing for the whole FAU community and we're bringing that integrity back to the school."
Wright also changed the way the team conducts practice.
"We have added some things," Wright said. "We added the scout bowl. We have added some competition at the end of practice. We have done some fun things. We have added some things into practice."
Wright's latest change was to elevate offensive line coach Luke Meadows to offensive coordinator, although Wright will still call plays on game day.
"But coach Meadows will have more duty," Wright said. "He will have more responsibility with the game plan and I'm going to rely on him to get this offense ready."
One person who's been impressed by FAU's direction under Wright is Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken.
"Their coaches and players have done a great job of moving on," Monken told reporters during his weekly news conference Monday. "They've got a really good football team, well coached. They do a really nice job on offense."
Monken said his team would have a tough task containing FAU quarterback Jaquez Johnson, who hails from the Magnolia State and spent his freshman season playing at East Mississippi Community College.
"They do a nice job of putting you in a run-pass conflict and they've got some explosive guys around the perimeter," Monken said. "We're going to have to do a great job of containing their run game and forcing him into passing situations and putting him in a drop-back passing game. Some teams have been able to do it. That's easier said than done."
Monken said FAU's defensive line also makes it difficult to effectively run the ball.
"We'll have our work cut out for us," he said.