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FAU falls to Rice to finish 2023 campaign



The Florida Atlantic football team was unable to rain on Rice's parade and prevent them from becoming bowl eligible in their season finale Saturday afternoon, going down fighting 24-21 in a "Battle of the Owls" at Rice Stadium.

Their overall record falls to 4-8 with the loss and sees them go down to 10th place in the conference standings with a 3-5 showing in AAC play. They finish behind No. 18 Tulane, SMU, UTSA, Memphis, Rice, Navy, USF, North Texas, and UAB. This is their worst season since the 2016 campaign when they finished 3-9.

"That's a really good Rice team. Really well-coached and they played a little bit more discipline than we did obviously, to the tune of 81 plays to 43, 6-12 (on 3rd down), and 200-something yards rushing. We just weren't quite good enough on either side of the ball to withstand that," head coach Tom Herman said.

Only scoring 15 points in their last two home games, FAU knew they needed to start on the right track for their last contest. That they did on the first play of the day when running back Kobe Lewis sprinted for 75 yards to the end zone. However, after Rice turned over on downs in the red zone during their first possession of the ball, they made up for it the following drive with backup quarterback AJ Padgett finding Boden Groen for the 20-yard score.

While FAU couldn't get much going with only 30 total yards to show from the second quarter, Rice converted a field goal to enter halftime up 10-7.

FAU was able to retake the lead early in the second half. Quarterback Daniel Richardson launched a 36-yard pass to wide receiver Tony Johnson in the end zone to give the team a 14-10 edge. Unfortunately, Rice responded with two touchdowns in their next two drives with Padgett continuing to find his targets in convincing fashion.

Down 24-14 to begin the fourth quarter, FAU reduced the deficit to three thanks to quarterback Michael Johnson Jr. carrying the ball for six yards into the end zone for the touchdown, making it his seventh score of the year. Despite getting a key defensive stop near the end of the game, the team was unable to take advantage in their final drive as their fate being a 4-8 squad was ultimately sealed.

It was an unfortunate conclusion to the many seniors who will see their collegiate careers come to a close with the defeat. Nonetheless, Herman told them they will be rewarded for everything they have done for the program.

"When we win a conference championship around here, they're gonna get a ring because of the hard work and dedication to a new staff coming in. A lot of things changed and for the better, although we've still got a lot of work to do to make sure that is seen on the scoreboard. So a big part of us and the future being bright is those guys in the foundation," Herman said.

Rice dominated possession of the ball, having it for 40 minutes in contrast to 20 for FAU. This showed in the overall production from both sides, as Rice finished with 465 total yards (254 passing, 211 rushing) while FAU had 279 (128 passing, 151 rushing). Rice won 32-14 in total first downs, converted on six of their 12 third downs (FAU was 3-9), and went 4-6 in the red zone.

Kobe Lewis led the team in rushing yards with 82 including the aforementioned touchdown to start the game. Wide receivers Lajohntay Wester and Tony Johnson combined for 89 yards and a touchdown on six catches. Quarterback Tyriq Starks and running back Xavier Terrell also got plenty of snaps throughout the contest, with Starks throwing for 35 yards on five completions and Terrell rushing for 36 yards on four carries.

Both linebacker Jackson Ambush and safety Jarron Morris reached double-digits in tackles, the former having 13 (seven solo) and the latter making 10 (seven solo) and a pass breakup. Defensive back Daedae Hill had nine tackles (seven solo) and an interception, linebacker Jaylen Wester finished with seven (five solo), and cornerback Chris Tooley III (pictured above via FAU Athletics) achieved a season-high six tackles (four solo).

Herman admits it is hard to have sustained his first losing season as a head coach, but said there were a lot of lessons he learned from this year that will allow him to retool and maximize the potential of what FAU can be for the 2024 season.

"We've got to continue to remind ourselves that this is a process, but it is one that it's our job as coaches. It's my job as the head coach to make sure that the process is expedited as fast as humanly possible," Herman stated.

With the conclusion of this game, the Owls' 2023 season has officially come to a close as they gear up for spring camp next year.

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