It was a competitive day for the Florida Atlantic football team, going down clawing in a 23-17 defeat to the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Field.
This loss puts the Owls at 1-3 to end non-conference play, also seeing their all-time record against Big Ten opponents fall to 1-10.
"This was a very winnable game that we let ourselves beat ourselves, but a lot less this weekend than in previous weeks. So I think guys can feel and see that improvement. And I know we're going to be better for having played these last few games when we do hit conference because of the speed and physicality of what we've just gone through in the last two weeks," head coach Tom Herman said.
The Owls had a strong start to begin the game. After linebacker Xavier Peters sacked Illinois quarterback Luke Altmeyer to force a fumble as cornerback Jayden Williams recovered the ball, FAU got themselves on the board with a 22-yard field goal from Logan Lupo.
FAU continued to assert themselves in the quarter, growing their lead to 10 with quarterback Daniel Richardson launching a 19-yard pass to wide receiver Lajohntay Wester for the touchdown.
Illinois came firing back, however. A blown defensive play from FAU allowed Illinois receiver Griffin Moore to catch a 46-yard throw from Altmeyer to run to the end zone unscathed. Then in the last two minutes of the first half, Altmeyer rewarded himself with a seven-yard rush to take the lead for the Illini entering the break.
Even though FAU had a majority of possession for the third quarter, they were unable to make the most of their opportunities with Illinois being on the opposite side of the spectrum. The Illini used the run game effectively, having 81 yards to just 40 from the Owls, as they scored nine points to increase their lead to 23-10 heading into the final quarter.
The offense showed sign of life in the fourth quarter after being silent for the last two periods. Following solid gains from Larry McCammon III and Je'Quan Burton (pictured via Noah Goldberg), Richardson showed a lot of patience as he found an open BJ Alexander for the nine-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to six. Unfortunately, the defense was fatigued as Illinois stopped near FAU's end zone to get the first down and seal the deal.
FAU's inability to score in the red zone proved to be costly. Even though both teams scored three times each in that situation, the Owls had more opportunities as they were 3-of-6 compared to 3-of-4 from the Illini. They also struggled to convert on third down, being successful on 35.3% of their chances while Illinois were effective in 50% of their opportunities in getting a first down.
Wester continued to shine as the Owls best receiver. He made a game-high 13 receptions for a new season-high in receiving yards with 137 and the aforementioned touchdown, making today's performance the seventh time (second this season) in his career that he reached 100 yards or more in a game. Making his return from concussion protocol, Burton also had his moments as he made five catches for 54 yards (34 long).
FAU's run game also showed indications of improvement despite Illinois outrunning them 207-97. Missing the Clemson game due to an ankle injury, McCammon III put up 89 rushing yards on 17 carries with his longest attempt being for 25 yards.
In his first start as an Owl leading the snap, Richardson showcased moments of efficiency throughout the course of the contest. He completed 28 of his 49 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns for a decent quarterback rating of 110.4.
"I felt great, especially against a Power Five team, Big Ten team, which I have played in games like this. It was just a special feeling. The guys were behind me and I was just comfortable," Richardson said.
"The outcome wasn't the way we wanted it. But we'll go back to the drawing board and execute and get ready for Tulsa."
The defense was the main component in the Owls managing to keep the score close against the Illini. They had eight tackles for a loss of yardage including four sacks, and recovered two fumbles to give additional opportunities to the offense. Defensive end Marlon Bradley had a pair of sacks to go along with his seven tackles (four solo), cornerback Darius McClendon and safety Jarron Morris tied for the most tackles on the team with 11 each, and cornerback Romain Mungin broke up two passes as he finished with six tackles (four solo).
Herman said it was hard to judge the defense because of the explosive plays they gave up against Illinois.
"I used to work with defensive coaches who were like, "we played 78 snaps and on 72 of them, we held them to 160 yards". Well, what about the other six that went for 50 yards a pop? Those counted too," Herman said.
"Was there encouraging signs defensively in terms of the ability to fit gaps and tackle guys? Absolutely. But it goes to show you that that has to be second nature. I mean, there's no room for error when you're fitting the run game and if you get two guys in a gap because some guys guessed wrong, then you're gonna have holes."
Following today's performance, Herman acknowledged that there is a lot for the team to build on. With them having played back-to-back Power 5 teams on the road in Clemson and Illinois, he reminded the players that the conference championships the program won in 2017 and 2019 under Lane Kiffin happened despite the fact they started 1-3 in the former season and 2-2 in the latter.
"We got some big stops on defense when we needed to, we got turnovers. So there's plenty of evidence that shows what we can be, and now it's our job as coaches and our job as players to then figure out the mechanism here in the next week," Herman said.
With non-conference play over, the Owls will have a bye week to recover and regain their energy before hosting their first game of American Athletic Conference play against Tulsa on October 7th at Howard Schnellenberger Field. Tulsa is coming off a 22-14 win against Northern Illinois as they will face Temple on September 28th before playing FAU.