With its offense suddenly stagnant, FAU received the offensive spark it required from its defense, then finally found a ground game when it needed it most to defeat Western Kentucky 35-24 in Bowling Green, Ky.
Winners of six of its last seven games, the Owls became bowl eligible for the fifth time in program history with the win. The victory kept the Owls’ Conference USA championship hopes alive, allowing FAU to keep pace with Marshall, which defeated winless Rice on Saturday, in the East Division. Both Marshall and FAU have one loss in C-USA play. FAU handed WKU its second consecutive C-USA loss.
FAU (6-3, 4-1) last went bowling following its 2017 C-USA title, winning the Boca Raton Bowl. The Owls are a perfect 3-0 in bowl games.
“I think it’s cool,” FAU coach Lane Kiffin said about becoming bowl eligible. “We’ve established a new thing around here. It’s not that big a deal. We expect to go to a bowl game. Let’s get to a really good bowl game and win the conference.”
Trailing 14-0 in the second quarter, FAU linebacker Keke Leroy jarred the ball out of WKU quarterback Ty Storey’s hands with a sack. Chris Tooley scooped the loose ball and easily trotted 25 yards for a momentum-changing touchdown that instilled life in the Owls.
“It was a huge momentum change,” Kiffin said.
That would be the first of three FAU touchdowns in the final 8:36 of the second quarter, WKU (5-4, 4-2) on a chilly afternoon.
FAU led 28-14 following the first possession of the second half when Willie Wright scored his second touchdown in as many weeks. FAU appeared primed to pull away, but suddenly the Owls’ offense slowed.
WKU climbed to within 28-24 with a little less than 10 minutes remaining, but that’s when the Owls found their ground game.
Playing without leading rusher Malcolm Davidson, FAU leaned heavily on James Charles and Chauncey Mason
FAU trimmed more than 3:30 off the clock with a 10-play drive, nine of which were runs, that ended with a blocked field goal. Following an interception one play better, FAU marched 59 yards, with the only pass being a jet sweep. Running his TrontiCat package, reserve quarterback Nick Tronti put the finishing touches on the game-clinching drive by powering to a 22-yard touchdown with 2:20 remaining.
“When he runs the ball he’s hard to bring down, as you saw,” Kiffin said.
Charles ended the afternoon with 65 yards on 10 carries, Mason with 11 carries for 60. On those final two drives, the Owls rushed for 108 of their 189 yards on the day.
“That was great especially down a lot of running backs against a team that’s really good against the run,” Kiffin said. “That was huge because that’s the type of game there, in the fourth quarter on the road, you’ve got to be able to run the ball.”
That final drive marked the second time the Owls enjoyed success with the TrontiCat package.
FAU forced a three-and-out on the possession immediately following Tooley’s fumble return for a touchdown. At that point Kiffin called for the TrontiCat, and on the second play of the series Tronti caught a 41-yard pass from little-used wide receiver Brandon Robison, getting the Owls into the WKU red zone for the first time. Two plays later running back Larry McCammon took the ball the final 11 yards, tying the game.
Robison would send the Owls into the locker room with a 21-14 lead when he connected with Pico Harrison for a nine-yard score in the half’s closing minute.
FAU’s defensive turnover emerged from nowhere. Owls’ cornerbacks couldn’t slow Lucky Jackson, C-USA’s leading receiver, early and struggled to stop Storey on the run. Jackson’s 54-yard touchdown catch on the Hilltoppers’ second possession opened the scoring.
A 40-yard Storey-to-Jackson hookup set up a two-yard Storey touchdown run that gave WKU a 14-0 lead.
FAU’s offense moved the ball on its opening possession, driving 33 yard into WKU territory. After that drive, FAU managed only three consecutive three-and-outs, covering a combined 13 yards. It was following that third punt that Tooley’s fumble return changed the game.