Within one month, FAU has gone from conference championship hopes to failing to make a bowl game.
The Owls (5-7, 3-5 C-USA) fell to Middle Tennessee Saturday night 27-17 thanks to a 24-point run from the visitors. Unfortunately, this also occurred on senior night for many FAY players. The loss means Willie Taggart's ballclub will fail to see the post-season on the back of a four game losing streak, two of which coming at home.
A rare fast start gave FAU confidence early in the contest. Je'Quan Burton hauled in his lone completion three minutes into the evening with a 48-yard bomb from N'Kosi Perry. The eight play, 75 yard drive was followed up with four straight three-and-outs from the MTSU offense. The Owls defense held the visitors to just four yards gained in the first quarter.
The second quarter started just as well as the previous with senior John Mitchell making a gorgeous diving catch in the endzone to cap off a reverse flea-flicker from Perry. The play was set up by a 48-yard punt return from LaJohntay Wester to the MTSU 32 yard line.
The Owls' defense prevented Middle Tennessee (6-6, 4-4) from entering FAU territory until midway through the second quarter. That drive halted once the Blue Raiders entered the redzone. Still, MTSU chipped into FAU's lead with a 23-yard field goal to take a 14-3 deficit into halftime.
FAU worked quickly from the break as another MTSU punt gave way for the Owls' best drive since the opener, spanning nine plays and 72 yards. Disappointingly, the promising drive slowed once inside the Blue Raider redzone, cultivating in a 23-yard field goal from freshman Morgan Suarez.
Once again leading by 14 points, the Owls looked to be in cruise control to close out the contest as MTSU failed to score on the previous eight drives barring a single field goal. Alas, FAU failed to kill the game off. Four straight punts gave MTSU ample time to begin their comeback effort.
The Blue Raiders first touchdown came right after Suarez's field goal with arguably their best drive of the game. MTSU raced 75-yards downfield on just five plays, cutting FAU's lead to just one possession at 17-10.
The atmosphere around Howard Schnellenberger Field harkened to the late game collapses akin to the Carl Pelini and Charlie Partridge eras as the Owls gave up 17 points in the final period. The fourth quarter alone saw an MTSU field goal, go-ahead passing touchdown to a defensive lineman, and finally a fumble recovery for a touchdown. The two touchdowns came less than three minutes apart from one another and with less than five minutes left in the game.
MTSU rode their 24 unanswered points to bowl eligibility, forcing the Owls to stay home in the postseason for the first time since the 2018 campaign.
The disappointing result dwarfs a special accomplishment from FAU's LaJohntay Wester. His 14 completions set a new program record for catches in a single-game.
Here are our takeaways from the loss:
- Senior Moments - The Owls saw multiple timely hits and tackles throughout the game at what can be considered critical times. And the seniors played a big part. In the first half, Jordan Helm defended an end zone passing attempt that eventually helped hold the Blue Raiders to a field goal. Later, Korel Smith's hit on QB Mike DiLiello (photo left above) negated a driving threat after he rushed for 31 yards up the gut just two plays prior. With FAU leading 17-13, Helm would issue another blow to MTSU in the 4th quarter, taking the feet out of a DiLiello rushing attempt aimed at keeping the drive alive. Unfortunately, failed line protection by the Owls would put the game away late in the 4th quarter, effectively eliminating what could have very well been an FAU comeback, and thereby ruining the potential for a most special senior moment.
- Once Bitten Twice Shy - FAU used a masterful trick play to earn their first touchdown when N'Kosi Perry executed a flea flicker to WR Je'Quan Burton for 48 yards. However on their next two attempts to fool MTSU, which featured toss backs to both Burton and LaJohntay Wester for passing attempts, the Blue Raiders were prepared, blowing up the first for a sack and successfully defending the second. We haven't seen a lot of these types of plays lately, but it's probably best to work out the kinks before rolling any more out next year.
- The Grinch Who Stole Christmas - Florida Atlantic would have been enjoying the Post Season for the fourth time in the last five seasons (2017 Boca Raton Bowl, 2019 Boca Raton Bowl, 2020 Montgomery Bowl). And while it may not have been the first choice of games to participate in, they were likely heading east to the Bahamas, for a tilt against what looks to be MAC representative Ball State. Obviously, that hope ended late in the 4th quarter when Blue Raider DL Jordan Ferguson picked up Perry's fumble and ran it all the way back for a defensive score. Thus, Ferguson will serve as The Grinch Who Stole Christmas for FAU, it's seniors, fans, alumni, and students alike. Of note, C-USA is 3-3 in trips to the Island, and Middle Tennessee is 0-1.
- Trick or Treat - The Owls' play calling took an exciting turn with the implementation of multiple trick plays. While some did not work, the unpredictability added a layer to an offense that has been mostly vanilla throughout the season. The play calling reminded me of the Lane Kiffin years, minus the explosive plays.
- Evan Anderson's Thanksgiving Leftovers - FAU has an absolute stud in Evan Anderson. The 350 lbs nose guard caused problems for an unorganized MTSU offensive line. He led the team in tackles (7) and claims a game-high 2 QB hurries. He dominated the trenches, eating everything in his path.
- Senior Disappointment - This senior class will leave FAU the most coveted in program history. Two conference championships (still more than Marshall, mind you), two bowl wins, three bowl trips, and a perfect record over rival FIU. Despite the accolades, it is still extremely disappointing that they and the fanbase couldn't live a more traditional bowl game experience: two at their home stadium and one amidst the height of COVID-19.
- Where it went South - While the Owls started the second half well, the lack of a stable rushing attack in the final two periods doomed FAU from holding onto the lead. Yet FAU's 13 rushing attempts went for a combined -2 yards. That's shocking when knowing that FAU is at their best they run the ball with success, ala the win at Charlotte.