Despite having another career performance from wide receiver Lajohntay Wester (pictured via FAU Athletics), the Florida Atlantic football team was unable to come out of Birmingham victorious, losing in a 45-42 shootout to the UAB Blazers on Saturday afternoon at Protective Stadium.
Their overall record falls to 4-5 with the loss and sees them go down to fifth place in the conference standings with a 3-2 showing in AAC play. They are now behind No. 21 Tulane, SMU, UTSA, and Memphis.
"Hat's off to coach Trent Dilfer and his program. We knew that was a good team. I read somewhere that we were the underdog even coming into the game. So we knew, especially offensively, that this team was one that has scored on pretty much everybody that they played and now obviously, we didn't vision what took place today," head coach Tom Herman said.
The Owls built some momentum when they stopped UAB's first drive of the game with an excellent field-goal block from linebacker Desmond Tisdol. However, they couldn't take advantage of that offensively as they were unable to convert on fourth down despite being in field-goal range. Due to that miscue, UAB scored the first touchdown of the day with quarterback Jacob Zeno finding running back Jermaine Brown Jr. for the 46-yard score.
FAU managed to respond early in the second quarter, as quarterback Daniel Richardson threw a sharp 12-yard pass to wide receiver Lajohntay Wester to even things up. It didn't last long, as the Blazers took just 40 seconds off the game clock with receiver TJ Jones running for to the end zone unscathed for the 72-yard touchdown.
Despite getting a score from quarterback Michael Johnson Jr., who made a great run for 27 yards to the end zone as the Blazers' defense left him wide open, the Owls couldn't stop Zeno's rhythm. With 289 passing yards to his name, he added two more touchdowns between Johnson's to have UAB leading by double-digits at the half.
After UAB intercepted a pass from Richardson to score a defensive touchdown and have their lead be as big as 21 points, the Owls began the comeback as Wester led the way. He started it with the second rushing touchdown of his career, and then caught a 20-yard pass from Richardson to achieve a new career-high in total touchdowns with three.
Wester wound up tying the game when he made another reception from Richardson that allowed to run for 76 yards into the end zone to erase UAB's lead and rejuvenate the Owls with plenty of motivation. Following another stop by the defense, running back Kobe Lewis scored a 14-yard rushing touchdown to give FAU their first lead of the entire game to complete a 28-0 run.
Unfortunately for the Owls, the Blazers had a few more drives left. They scored the last 10 points of the game, including a go-ahead field goal from 26 yards with three seconds left on the game clock, which left FAU little to work with.
The quarterback battle was the key stat-line throughout the contest. Richardson threw for 293 yards and three touchdowns, but did so with a completion rate of 52%. On the other hand, Zeno was accurate on 83% of his throws for 484 yards and five touchdowns.
FAU largely remained disciplined against UAB, committing only two penalties for a loss of 20 yards compared to eight for 60 yards lost from the Blazers. The Owls also had more tackles for loss, making 11 for a loss of 41 yards whereas UAB had just five which created a loss of 38 yards.
Wester was undoubtedly a record-breaker with the historic performance he had. His first reception of the game made him FAU's all-time single season leader, his 219 receiving yards marked a new program record in a game, his four total touchdowns was another career-high, and last but not least, he passed the 1,000-yard mark with his 11th and final catch in the fourth quarter. He is at 1,004 yards and counting heading into the team's next matchup.
"He's the gas that makes our engine go on offense, and I'm continued to be marveled by Coach Frye being able to manufacture ways to get him not double-teamed…We're gonna keep trying to find him the ball against East Carolina and whoever we play after that because he is that good and that explosive, and we're gonna continue to ride him on that side of the ball as much as we can," Herman said.
The Owls' run game had the overall edge over the Blazers', winning 191-115 in rushing yards. Lewis led the unit with 80 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, Larry McCammon III had 68 yards on 13 rushes, and quarterback Michael Johnson Jr. finished with 38 yards and a touchdown on three attempts.
Safety Jarron Morris led the defense with a game-high 13 (five solo) tackles and had a pass breakup to go along with it. Tisdol had 11 tackles (five solo) including one for a loss of yardage, while safety Darius McClendon and outside linebacker Jaylen Wester finished with eight tackles each. Safety Dwight Toombs II had the team's lone interception during the third quarter, which led to Lajohntay Wester's third of his four touchdowns.
Herman said he's proud of the team's effort coming back down 21 in the third to keep the game within reach, but understands that they still have to mature as a collective throughout the highs and lows.
"We've got to grow up a little bit. We've got to not ride these waves and roller coasters of emotion and learn how to play at a very high level. And it's okay to be emotional in that moment, good or bad. But there's gotta be a switch that flips and it's back to business as usual," Herman stated.
"We got a chance to go 1-0 against East Carolina and also take one step closer to continuing our season with some postseason play that will allow us to continue to grow."
The Owls will return home to Boca Raton as they host the East Carolina Pirates on November 11th at 4:00 PM, which will be broadcast on ESPN+. The Pirates are coming off a competitive 13-10 defeat to 21st-ranked Tulane, having their record descend to 1-8 (0-5 AAC).