The Florida Atlantic football team made sure to begin conference play as a member of the American Athletic Conference with a bang, securing a gritty 20-17 victory over the Tulsa Golden Hurricane on Saturday night at Howard Schnellenberger Field.
With the win, their overall record improves to 2-3 and propels themselves to the top of the conference standings with a 1-0 record in AAC play.
"I'm really proud of the way that we responded, proud of the maturity and growth that we have shown. That team [Tulsa], we knew they were not going to go away," said head coach Tom Herman, who sees his all-time record against the Golden Hurricane improve to 4-0 going back to his coaching days at Houston.
"Coach (Kevin) Wilson is too good of a coach and runs too good of a program. Our guys kept fighting. We ran into some self-inflicted wounds, which has been our M.O., but we found a way for the first time all year to really overcome those."
The Owls were rolling on both sides of the ball in the first quarter. The defense got started with cornerback Jayden Williams making an interception, which resulted in the Owls getting a rushing touchdown from running back Larry McCammon III to open up the scoring.
McCammon III continued to use this as momentum near the end of the quarter, when he rushed for 10 yards into the end zone for his second of the night. The last time he had two touchdowns in a game was the season-finale against Western Kentucky last year.
Keeping the Tulsa offense scoreless in the first quarter, the Owls' defense were unable to prevent them from reaching the end zone in the second quarter. Quarterback Cardell Williams had a seven-yard rush to get himself to score the touchdown and have Tulsa be on the scoreboard.
The Owls responded before halftime came around, getting a 21-yard field goal from Logan Lupo to lead by 10 at the break. They were 3-of-3 in scoring in the red zone, indicating a significant improvement in an area where they struggled in past games.
"It was much more improved. It was great to see us run the ball into the end zone twice down there near the goal line. That was definitely a positive," Herman said, as the team finished 4-of-5 for the entire game.
After having a pleasant day of clear skies with a bright sun, rain made its presence known in the second half. It poured down relentlessly on the field and the stands, causing most fans to make their departures and both teams to handle the significant change in field conditions. For FAU, they placed more emphasis on the run, gaining up to 128 yards in contrast to just 36 yards in the passing game.
The Golden Hurricane asserted themselves as the game went on, scoring a touchdown and a field goal. FAU managed to get a 27-yard field goal from Logan Lupo to keep the momentum on their side, but the offense was unable to maintain their dominance from the first quarter despite flashes of brilliance from McCammon III and Kobe Lewis.
Unable to score on their last drive, FAU needed a strong moment from their special teams, which is what they got from Lupo when he punted the ball for a career-high 71 yards down to Tulsa's six-yard line with 3:30 left on the game clock. He finished with 207 yards on four punts.
Tulsa tried to make the most of their last drive in the dying minutes, but FAU stopped them in their tracks when linebacker Jackson Ambush made a sack that ended the Golden Hurricane's scoring opportunity and the game in favor for the Owls.
FAU ended up showing more composure as a team, committing just one penalty for the entire affair compared to Tulsa's five.
McCammon III finished the night with a new career-high in rushing yards with 130, as well as two touchdowns on 26 carries. Wide receiver Lajohntay Wester saw his three-game streak of having 100 or more receiving yards end, but turned in 98 yards on nine catches throughout the game. Running back Kobe Lewis also had an impressive display, averaging 14.5 yards per carry including one where he ran for a career-high 58 yards.
"Our o-line wants to run the ball, they kept saying let's run the ball, so why not? Today was a statement game for us to prove to everybody that we can run the ball," McCammon III said as FAU's run game totaled up to 234 yards, the highest since the season-opening win against Monmouth.
A trio of linebackers shined on defense for the Owls. Desmond Tisdol led the team in tackles with eight (four solo), a career high for the Auburn transfer. Jaylen Wester (pictured via Bob Markey II) had a strong performance with eight tackles (three solo), and Ambush made eight tackles as well including the aforementioned game-sealing sack.
"We had to come out and play better than we played against Illinois, Clemson, Ohio. We have been practicing to flush the bad moments that we had in those games and come practice hard, practicing those situations," Tisdol said.
Herman said for FAU to be a championship team, they need to find ways to close out games when the opponents have opportunities.
"We are not quite there yet. It doesn't happen overnight, but I'm really proud of the growth and maturity that we have shown," Herman said.
"We are taking the steps necessary to compete. The only long term goal we had was to compete for championships in late November and early December. We are still on track to do that, but we have to make the same kind of improvements week over week that we made the last few weeks."
The Owls will remain in-state as they head up to Tampa to face USF on October 14th at 3:30 PM, as it will be broadcast on ESPN2. The Bulls are coming off a 56-35 defeat to UAB, seeing their overall record fall to 3-3 (2-1 AAC).