Freshman Trey Rodriguez lit up FAU Stadium in his first Shula Bowl to give the Florida Atlantic University football team a 31-17 victory over rival FIU on Saturday.
“There were some things that happened today that I’m proud of,” FAU Head Coach Charlie Partridge said. “Hopefully we can start some trends. My mind goes to the third quarter, we have a 17-10 lead coming out of halftime. Richard Leonard is one of the best returners I’ve seen in my career. He’s a special kick returner/punt returner. He hits his first 60+ (return), it gets called back because a block in the back. We have some things happen, get them to third and long, we convert with a surprise run on third and long and our defense holds them to a field goal. At this point, I think everyone watching was thinking, ‘How’s Florida Atlantic going to respond?”
“Our offense responds by working their way back down the field. Jaquez [Johnson] fights to convert on fourth and four, which ends up leading to a touchdown to put (the score) at 24-10,” Partridge said. “So that’s a moment in the game where I said, ‘Alright our kids are starting to grow up here’.”
The Daytona Beach native carried the ball 20 times for 95 yards to single-handedly out-gain Panthers’ (4-5, 2-3 C-USA) ground attack by nearly 30 yards. Rodriguez also scored the first points of the game to give FAU a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, a minimum margin the Owls (2-6, 2-3 C-USA) would hold for the game’s entirety.
Quarterback Jaquez Johnson returned to form, completing 10 passes for 113 yards while rushing for 64 more. Trey Hendrickson tied an FAU single-season record with 7.5 sacks, earning 2.5 on the day along with freshman Hunter Snyder.
The Owls posted 397 yards of total offense while holding FIU to 262. FAU scored on five of its eight drives, only being forced to punt once as it marched into FIU territory on every possession.
On FIU’s first drive of the game, Hendrickson wrapped up quarterback Alex McGough, allowing freshman Azeez Al-Shaair to force a fumble which Nate Ozdemir recovered at the FIU 32-yard line. Five plays later, Rodriguez put the Owls on the board with a five-yard touchdown run, his fourth in as many games.
Redshirt freshman Jason Driskel took the snaps for the Owls on their next possession and went 6-of-6 for 55 yards through the air before finishing off the drive with a six-yard touchdown run.
Sacks by Snyder and Hendrickson on the next FIU possession backed the Panthers up a total of 23 yards, forcing a punt to give the Owls the ball at their own 35. Johnson led the squad into the red zone again before Greg Joseph made a 25-yard field goal to increase the advantage to 17-0.
The Panthers ended the shutout threat on their final drive of the first half as McGough picked up a one-yard touchdown rush to send the teams into the locker room at 17-7 FAU.
The third quarter saw just two possessions as FIU ate up 9:15 off the clock on a 16-play, 65-yard drive culminating in a 47-yard field goal by Austin Taylor to make it a one-possession game.
FAU responded with a 17-play, 78 yard drive over the next 8:04, featuring seven carries by Rodriguez, including a one-yard touchdown run to put the Owls back up 24-10.
The FAU defense held FIU at midfield on the next two drives, forcing a fumble to stop one drive before Jalen Young (pictured) snagged a McGough interception and returned it 58 yards to blow the lead up to 31-10. It was the Owls third pick six of the season and all have been by true freshmen.
A 23-yard kickoff return set FIU up with a short field on its next play, allowing the Panthers to score on a 22-yard pass to chip away at the lead with 1:33 to play.
FAU freshman Ralph Leonard recovered FIU’s onside kick attempt, allowing the Owls to run the clock out in victory formation to win their tenth Shula Bowl in the 13th meeting.
The Owls will next go on the road to face C-USA leader WKU on Saturday, Nov. 7 at Noon.
- Brandon Goodwin