BOCA RATON – Curious play in the final minutes added some unnecessary excitement to FAU’s 33-27 victory over Air Force on Saturday, but the Owls ultimately earned their first win of the season – and that’s what matters most. Following every game we review the good, the bad and the surprising with our Four Down Territory analysis.
Chuck King: No one figured that FAU’s unproven special teams unit would suddenly play like they were wearing Virginia Tech uniforms, but how could they perform this poorly two weeks in a row? Oklahoma blocked a Sebastian Riella punt in Week 1 because the freshman took too long to kick the ball. Same thing happened against Air Force at a time when, in the closing minute, FAU had to realize that the Falcons’ only change of winning was to block a punt. Then FAU botched the ensuing onside kick, giving the ball back to the Falcons. And earlier in the game Vladimir Rivas, who made the first two field goal attempts of his career on Saturday, clanked an extra point off the upright. Not only did FAU not improve on special teams, the Owls arguably somehow found a way to take a step backward.
Wajih AlBaroudi: FAU’s inability to get the ground game going for a second straight week. The Owls rushing attack was bottled up once again yesterday after seeing similar results in its season opener. Through two showings FAU has only 186 rushing yards as a team. Last season the Owls ran for more than 186 yards in a single game 12 times. Air Force loaded the box and forced the Owls to beat them via the pass – which they did, to the tune of a program-high 471 passing yards – but defenses applied that same strategy last season to no avail.
King: It’s easy to point to quarterback Chris Robison’s record-breaking 471-yard passing performance and make him the selection here, but most of that yardage came on quick pitches, which are essentially running plays but not counted that way statistically, or tosses along the line of scrimmage. To choose an offensive player, the award would have to go to either Jovon Durante (12 catches, 147 yards, TD) or Willie Wright (6 catches, 75 yards, 2 TDs). But linebacker Rashad Smith was the real star of this game. Against an offense where tackling is of premium importance, the junior set a career-high with 16 of them. He also bailed out the special teams by intercepting a pass to seal the victory.
AlBaroudi: Rashad Smith not only had a monster day statistically – picking up a career-high 16 tackles – but also made two key plays that directly affected the game’s outcome. With three minutes remaining and Air Force trying to pull to within a touchdown, the Falcons attempted a fourth-and-two deep in Owls territory. Smith shot through the line of scrimmage to bring down Ronalf Cleveland a yard shy of the first down marker. After Air Force scored on a blocked punt return and subsequently got the ball back on an onside kick, Smith intercepted an Isaiah Sanders pass to close the game in the final seconds.
King: Leading 33-20 with about 3:30 remaining in the game, FAU elected to try to pick up a first down on fourth-and-1 from its own 34. Yes, a first down would have gone a long way to icing the game, but when Devin Singletary’s run into the middle of the line failed to gain a yard, Air Force – a team whose offense isn’t geared toward quick scores – gained new life. Part of what made the play controversial was the decision not to punt – although, considering what happened a minute-and-a-half later when the Falcons scored by blocking a punt, it’s somewhat understandable. But the Owls also ran a play that Air Force had stuffed much of the day. Bottled up all day in the middle of the field, Singletary managed only 49 rushing yards and the Owls as a whole tallied 52 yards on the afternoon.
AlBaroudi: As readers of OwlAccess.com expected, FAU started James Pierre in place of Shelton Lewis at corner. Coach Lane Kiffin said he made the switch to improve perimeter tackling in preparation of Air Force’s run-heavy option offense and Pierre stepped up to the challenge. A physical presence out on the boundary, the six-foot-two 175-pound Deerfield Beach product was phenomenal in run support against Air Force, leading his team in solo tackles (7). On two separate occasions he stopped what would have been chunk gains for the Falcons out on the edge by fighting off blocks and delivering vicious hits that physically flipped the ball carrier.
King: Forget an indoor practice facility, maybe Howard Schnellenberger was right when he proposed a domed stadium for the Owls nearly two decades ago. Lightning delayed the start of the game 80 minutes and canceled the scheduled F-16 flyover – a sight FAU has been trying unsuccessfully to create since 2011. Weather certainly diminished what would have been an excellent crowd for the home opener. The announced crowd of 24,101 didn’t all make it into the stadium, but Howard Schnellenberger Field was more than half full. The students showed up in force and cheered a victory, which should bode well for games going forward. Provided it doesn’t rain.
AlBaroudi: Kiffin’s trust in Robison was vindicated yesterday. The 19-year-old signal caller had a shaky debut last week against his former team, Oklahoma, yet Kiffin stuck with him deep into the game when he could have pulled him earlier. Robison got the start again yesterday and proved why he earned that trust in the first place, tossing three touchdowns and a program-high 471 passing yards. The Owls may have a star on their hands in the Texas-native gunslinger but if they had a coach with less patience in developing young talent, we might not have gotten a chance to see Robison shine.