Florida Atlantic’s defense had shown improvements all season long, but Saturday afternoon against rival Florida International they played their best, stopping a fourth-and-goal conversion and not allowing a touchdown while securing a 21-9 victory.
“We had to go out there and make a play and we came out with the win on defense,” defensive end Jamere Johnson said of the performance.
Things didn’t start out well for FAU’s offense, as the unit managed only 34 yards of total offense and one first down in the first quarter, but thankfully the team’s defense came ready to play.
After an initial 39-yard field goal for the Golden Panthers and an early 3-0 lead, the FIU offense looked primed for another score as they were moving the ball down the field with easy. Once in Owl territory, defensive back Tarvoris Hill forced the first turnover of the game, when he jarred the ball out of T.Y. Hilton’s hands and the defense recovered, giving FAU the ball. However, the offensive struggles continued and the Owls had to punt again. Mickey Groody punted the ball on the team’s first five possessions and had a long of 73-yards that landed in the end zone.
The offense did find some production after the Golden Panthers kicked a 35-yard field goal to bring the game to a 6-0 lead. FAU drove the ball down the field, converting on three different third down situations and ending it with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Van Camp to Lester Jean to give the Owls a 7-6 lead.
“I would just say, our back against the wall, this is just seniors not wanting to lose to these guys,” Van Camp said of the offense turning things around.
Van Camp went 3-for-3 on the drive and the offense looked to have finally found their footing late in the second quarter. Jean was named FAU’s Shula Bowl MVP after his 8 catch, 114 yard, one touchdown performance.
FIU Head Coach Mario Cristobal made his first aggressive decision of the game after the Owls took the lead, electing to go for a first down rather than punting the ball on 4th and one from FAU’s 49-yard line. Linebacker Yourhighness Morgan would come up with a stop to give FAU possession 2:29 left in the half. But Kicker Ross Gornall couldn’t translate the momentum into points, as he missed a 38-yard field goal attempt wide left just seconds before halftime.
FAU had a 7-6 halftime lead with only 123 yards of total offense, compared to the Golden Panther’s 204. Once the second half got underway, the Owls defense couldn’t find an answer to T.Y. Hilton and the Golden Panther offense, as they marched the ball right down the field after the kickoff.
Hilton, FIU’s Shula Bowl MVP, converted two different third downs, one via the ground and the other on a 28-yard catch. However, FAU’s defense held again on third down, and FIU’s kicker Jack Griffin connected on his third field goal of the game, as the Panthers took a 9-7.
With the pressure now back on the offense, Van Camp led the Owls into Golden Panther territory, and set up a 16-yard touchdown run for Alfred Morris. The score came on 3rd and 8 as Morris broke through multiple defenders to score.
“I thought they were going to tackle me at one point, but they just kept hitting me and falling off, and I just kept turning my legs,” Morris said.
With the lead back in FAU’s hands at 14-9, the defense was called on again to make plays. Johnson sacked FIU quarterback Wesley Carroll to end one drive, and the defense collectively managed to hold a goal line stand on the next, as Golden Panther Coach Mario Cristobal elected to go for the score rather than kick an easy three.
Carroll had found wide receivers Wayne Times and Hilton open on two long pass plays, which lead to a first and goal from the FAU seven-yard line. Times lined up in a “wildcat” formation on third and fourth down, but the Owls defense stiffened and forced a turnover of possessions when he overthrew a pass.
“Outstanding,” Schnellenberger said of the stand. “They did very well in short yardage all day.”
FAU took over at its own two yard line with 11:19 left in the fourth quarter needing to run down the clock. Van Camp and Jean connected on another third down play for a first down, and Morris carried the ball 18-yards to the Owls 35-yard line. Backup running back Willie Floyd then had his best carry on the day, racing 65-yards for a touchdown and giving the home team a commanding 21-9 lead.
“This is a game we definitely had to have,” Floyd said.
Florida International got the ball back with 8:13 left in the game, but Carroll sparked a sequence of five turnovers in three minutes. The FIU quarterback threw three interceptions, and the Owls fumbled the ball two times. Safety Marcus Bartels grabbed two of the interceptions, one of which all but secured the win for FAU with 5:23 left on the scoreboard.
Morris would carry the ball six more times before the Owls finished the clock in victory formation for their fifth straight Shula Bowl win.
“I’m proud of the defense, and looking forward to the potential we can possibly be,” Bartels said.
The defense’s performance was one of their best in year’s holding FIU to only 360 yards of offense and not giving up a touchdown for the first time since a shutout of Arkansas State in 2006.
“My hat goes off to Kurt Van Valkenburgh and his staff, in every game we have played they have played better,” Schnellenberger said.