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FAU’s defensive line will lead the attack against Ohio State’s inexperienced offense

With a new QB and a reformed offensive line, FAU’s hopes for an unfathomable upset will start up front.

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Oklahoma Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier in the week, Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day talked in his weekly press conference about what how his offense will function. With Justin Fields still getting a feel for things, development of the newly named starting quarterback will take place in practice, games and in the film room.

Getting better each week is the goal, and from a coaching perspective, understanding how your QB approaches the problem-solving aspects of the game is pretty critical. In the presser, Day talked about he (and the staff) will be looking at Fields’ ability to get out of jams, and how he manages the offense.

“And then as we start to play these games I think we’ll get a feel for his creativity as plays break down, what he can handle in terms of route combinations, his progressions, the way he sees things in a game,” Day said.

For the Buckeyes, they aren’t opening up against a Power 5 opponent. It’s not like in 2015 when they played on a Monday night against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. The Florida Atlantic Owls are coming to town, and while they may not be as talented as a Virginia Tech, they have experience up front.

Leading the way in experience is senior defensive tackle Kevin McCrary. The Daytona Beach, Fla., native has played in 38 games — starting in 22 of them. While defensive end Leighton McCarthy has started in 26 games, those were the only games that he has appeared in. Fellow DT Ray Ellis, in his graduate season, has played in 29 games (with seven starts). Those are the only three members of the FAU defensive line that have starting experience, and when up against an Ohio State team with the likes of Thayer Munford and Branden Bowen on the offensive line, all of those reps and starts will be needed to do the impossible.

When head coach Lane Kiffin arrived to Boca Raton, Fla., in 2017, he talked about doing the impossible. The Owl defense did its part in leading the team to an 11-3 (9-0) record in 2017. However, things fell apart in 2018. Blowouts to Oklahoma and UCF, and a myriad of injuries pushed the Owls toward the bottom of the Conference USA standings and out of the bowl season.

The stat box wasn’t stuffed for McCrary, who only had 23 tackles and three quarterback hits last season. McCarthy had a slightly better outing over 12 games, compiling 39 tackles, 0.5 sacks, a pass breakup, and five hits on the QB. The redshirt junior was also named the FAU defensive line “Top Guy” for his efforts during spring practice along with Ellis.

DE Tim Bonner is the team’s returning sack leader. With three sacks rotating on the line, he’ll also be one of the guys that Kiffin and defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro relies on to either stuff Fields on the pass, or stuffing the rush.

Getting back to those heights of 2017 begins on Saturday inside Ohio Stadium. At the same time, the lows of 2018 can also begin at Ohio Stadium. It all comes down to who’s willing to step up and make plays.

Florida Atlantic is not entering this game as a favorite. But they do have the ability to present some issues for the first-time starting quarterback and newly reformed offensive line. Guys up front like McCrary, McCarthy and Ellis will need to hold their own against the likes of Bowen and Munford. Someone on that line has to be the vocal leader for the Owls. If not, the trip back to Boca Raton is going to be a long one.

This will be Fields’ first game in the scarlet and gray, and there’s an expectation that he’s going to make some dazzling plays that completely electrify the stadium — and demoralizes the FAU defense. Forcing Fields out of the pocket, and rushing his progressions will be the key ways that the Owl defense can stop OSU from moving the chains at will. But the QB isn’t the only playmaker that Ohio State has. The Buckeyes also have a high-quality rusher in J.K. Dobbins.

“You have to gang tackle him and you have to get everyone to the ball. It is the only thing you can do,” Kiffin said of Dobbins.

Linebacker Rashad Smith led the team in tackles (86) last season, and he’ll be important this week for the FAU. However, the line play is where it’s at for Week 1. If the trenches are being dominated by the Buckeyes, it doesn’t really matter what the LBs or DBs do. The OSU offense will be having its way. If the Owls give gaps at the line of scrimmage, Dobbins is going to make a cut, then be off to the races.

And just as Kiffin mentions, a 1v1 situation against Dobbins isn’t going to work either; he’s going to break the tackle and leave vapor trails as he strides to the end zone. McCrary, McCarthy/Bonner and everyone else who sees playing time on Saturday has to be playing to win — even though that chance seems slim. If they don’t, it’ll be like Oklahoma last season, and I think everyone watching the game inside The ‘Shoe and/or at home would love to see the Ryan Day era begin with a 60-plus point showing.

FAU comes into this game with experience, and stat leaders from a season ago. Both are important, especially for a G5 school going on the road to face a P5 school. It becomes doubly important to have experience when going against a mighty P5 school like Ohio State.

This is bend but don’t break territory for the Owls. Day has an explosive OSU offense at his disposal, and a Buckeye defense that’s hungry to make amends for a drop off in 2018. If Fields, Dobbins, and the offensive line can break the spirit of FAU’s defense, then it’s a runaway.

I’d imagine that making sure that spirit is intact will be McCrary. If he can be the vocal captain before and during the game, then FAU’s defensive efforts may be enough to make things interesting on Saturday.