FAU snaps 15-game road losing streak with strong 2nd half
Florida Atlantic had lost fifteen straight games on the road heading into Saturday afternoon’s meeting with Western Kentucky, but they weren't going to let that number reach sixteen.
The team played their most complete game of the season and quarterback Graham Wilbert accounted for three touchdowns, as the Owls took down the Hilltoppers in a 37-28 win.
“It was the first road win against a very quality opponent. I can’t express how big this is for our confidence,” Head Coach Carl Pelini said.
The last time the program had won a contest on the road , it came two years ago against the Hilltoppers. Saturday, the Owls arrived as major underdogs and with a chip on their shoulder after falling short last week against Navy.
Pelini and his staff weren’t going to allow the team to blunder on the road again and a second half full of determination showed for it.
The Owls battled back into the contest early in the second quarter after Western Kentucky took an initial lead on a 2-yard touchdown run from Antonio Andrews.
Travis Jones returned a punt 48-yards into opposing territory and set up the Owls first score of the afternoon. Wilbert would connect with Damian Fortner on a screen pass to the 1-yard line, before the quarterback would dive in for a 1-yard rushing touchdown.
Western Kentucky would find the end zone again, before Wilbert put together one of his best drives of the season. The senior marched the offense down the field with under four minutes remaining in the half, and capped it off with a 6-yard touchdown strike to Daniel McKinney (pictured) to tie the game at the break.
The Owls had committed numerous costly penalties, but where lucky to be all square at halftime.
Fortner and fellow running back Jonathon Wallace were ineffective in-between the tackles and struggled to pick up yardage on the ground.
As the third quarter dragged on, punter Sean Kelley helped the Owls win the battle for field position by pinning the home team inside their own 20-yard line on three separate occasions.
FAU’s defense did it’s best to contain the conference’s leading rusher in Andrews and focused on rattling quarterback Kawaun Jakes.
Keith Reaser intercepted a Jakes throw to the sidelines and gave the ball back to offense with prime field position to take a lead. Wilbert and company capitalized on the opportunity, as the quarterback connected with McKinney for a 20-yard touchdown.
The Owls had their first lead of the game and extended it with a Mitch Anderson 47-yard field goal into the wind.
The visitors led 24-14 early in the fourth quarter and looked ready to walk away comfortably with their third win of the season. But the same issues that have been lingering all year reappeared, and FAU allowed Western Kentucky to storm back into the contest.
Jakes would hit Andrews for a 24-yard touchdown and the lead was cut to just three points. The offense would then stall out on the next drive and the Hilltoppers missed a 32-yard field goal attempt wide right.
The Owls would add another touchdown for security late in the fourth quarter, and linebacker Freedom Whitfield intercepted a Jakes pass a few plays later.
Pelini would call for the offense to run the ball and drain out the clock, but Fortner fumbled a handoff, and it was returned 75-yards for a Western Kentucky touchdown.
The Hilltoppers failed to convert on an onside kick, and the Owls would finally seal the deal when Reaser returned a fumble 9-yards for a touchdown.
“That was huge. They had played good all day. They had a couple of drives where they let down and we’ll have to eliminate those. But they played hard and they played good,” Pelini said.
Wilbert finished the day with 257 yards passing, three total touchdowns and no interceptions. More importantly he managed to keep the offense moving with little production from the ground game.
William Dukes had a team-high 104 yards receiving, but it was McKinney who caught the two scores. The pair of touchdowns came as the first of his career.
The Owls’ defense forced four turnovers, which is tied for the most by the unit in a game this season.
Western Kentucky was limited to just 288 yards of offense – the lowest total FAU’s defense has held a conference opponent to in 11 games.
“We just played good gap-control defense. For the most part our guys did a nice job with that. That’s a step forward for this defense. Again, I’ll say it, five weeks ago I don’t think we would have handled that very well,” Pelini said.
- Kelly had arguably one of the best games out of anyone in an Owls uniform. The freshman punter bombed a 66-yard punt early in the third quarter that was downed at the Hilltoppers’ 5-yard line. In the fourth quarter he put another out-of-bounds at their 2-yard line to help seal the game. In all, Kelly had five punts downed inside the 20-yard line and averaged 40.8 yards a kick.
- Reaser had an interception, fumble recovery and a touchdown. The corner also added five tackles and helped hold Western Kentucky to their lowest offensive production total in eight games. The interception was Reaser’s fifth of his career and second this season.
- Penalties were an issue for the Owls all day and often stalled drives or came at costly times on defense. The visitors where flagged 11 times for a season-high 100 yards. The yardage was the most against the Owls since last year’s game against Florida International in which they were flagged 14 times for 142 yards. Coming into the weekend, FAU was the least penalized team in the conference.
- The Owls’ 98 yards rushing, marked the fourth time this season that the offense has failed to surpass the century mark on the ground. Wallace was held to just 68 rushing yards, and couldn’t find holes in the Hilltoppers’ defensive front.