FAU needs a fourth quarter rally to defeat Wagner 7-3 in the first game under new coach Carl Pelini.
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BOCA RATON – Heading into halftime down three points to Wagner, it wasn’t a sense of panic that filled the Florida Atlantic locker room but rather determination to finish what they had started.
That resolve paid off for the Owls, who mounted a second-half comeback en route to a 7-3 victory over Wagner on Friday at FAU Stadium in Carl Pelini's first game as a college head coach.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do as a football team, obviously, but I do think that we showed some character, some integrity,” said Owls coach Carl Pelini. “A lot of things went against us. We hurt ourselves in a lot of ways, but we never gave up.”
Against Wagner, a meber of the Football Chamopionship Series, the first half was one that the Owls (1-0) would like to forget. The offense struggled to move the ball and two turnovers marred drives that showed any degree of promise.
The decision to put redshirt senior quarterback Graham Wilbert in the game in the second half in place of starter Stephen Curtis was one that significantly altered the tempo of the offense and the outcome of the game. The passing game, which was virtually non-existent in the first half under Curtis, came to life along with the ground attack with Wilbert under center.
“We started making some plays on the ground and the O-line started feeding off that and we started moving a bit,” Wilbert said.
Pelini praised Wilbert’s maturity in the aftermath of the decision to start Curtis in the season opener.
“He showed a lot of maturity, a lot of selflessness,” Pelini said. “He did a great job in the first half rallying the guys himself and talking to Stephen. He was ready to go in the second half. He was engaged in the game and certainly did a great job out there.”
Wilbert’s impact was immediate in his first drive of the game in the second half. He led FAU on a 43-yard drive that ended with a failed 39-yard field goal attempt.
After a 74-yard drive that ended with a fumble by junior running back Martese Jackson in the red zone, and with some help from their defense, the Owls would alter the momentum and outcome of the game in just seven seconds.
On the first play of the drive in the fourth quarter, Wilbert found a streaking Byron Hankerson in the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown that gave the Owls the lead. It was Hankerson’s first career touchdown.
“It felt good to be back out there. It’s been five years, great program,” Hankerson said. “I was just excited to be out there with all of my teammates.”
Jackson, who saw significant playing time with both Damian Fortner and Jonathan Wallace in street clothes on the sidelines, contributed to the success of the offense in the second half behind Wilbert.
Jackson rushed for 99 yards on 21 carries and had some big runs on key third and fourth down plays.
But Jackson wasn’t without his faults. He fumbled twice inside the red zone, including on FAU’s final drive as they tried to put the game away in the final minute.
“I was waiting for my opportunity and for it to open up,” he said. “I could’ve been better, but we got the ‘W’ so I’m not complaining.”
Despite the victory and the 1-0 start, things were far from perfect, as Pelini and his players acknowledged.
Protecting the football remains a significant concern for a team that practices ball security for the first 10 minutes of every practice.
“It’ll be a learning lesson for us,” Pelini said. “I think now that when we preach ball security I think they’ll appreciate our message.”
The defense struggled with some assignments, as well as containing Wagner running back Dominique Williams, who rushed for 117 yards, but they were impressive running to the football.
“We were very simple defensively. We didn’t really know what to expect from their offense,” Pelini said. “They stayed in a lot more big personnel than we expected. We were limited call-wise a little bit, but our guys did a good job.”
With the season opener over and done, the focus shifts to next week’s Sun Belt Conference game against Middle Tennessee (0-1). Pelini said he expects to see a big leap between the first and second week.
“We should make great strides as a football team before week two,” Pelini said. “We’ll spend a lot of time with this game film and figure out what we can do better.”
Inside The Game: FAU 7, Wagner 3
With FAU trailing 3-0 in the fourth quarter and after a red zone turnover on its previous drive, quarterback Graham Wilbert connected with receiver Byron Hankerson on a 39-yard touchdown reception. It gave the Owls their first lead of the season and it was the only lead they would need.
- One has to wonder how it’s not already decided that quarterback Graham Wilbert will get the start vs. Middle Tennessee next week after a great two quarters of football in place of Stephen Curtis.
- After struggling against an FCS team it will be interesting to see how many fans return to FAU Stadium for the Owls’ game against North Texas on September 29.
- FAU should feel fortunate to get the victory. If the Seahawks hadn’t shot themselves in the foot with mistakes, they were primed to pull off the upset.
3 – Turnovers by FAU, including two red zone fumbles
7 – Quarters the Owls went since their last score, before scoring in the fourth quarter
14,150 – Announced attendance for Friday’s game at FAU Stadium although the actual crowd appeared to be below 10,000
The Owls will play their first Sun Belt Conference game against Middle Tennessee, who lost to FCS McNeese State 27-21 on Thursday, on September 8 at 7 p.m.