BOCA RATON – Throughout fall camp Lane Kiffin consistently noted that the defense would likely carry the 2018 Owls, at least early in the season while the offense attempted to mesh under a new quarterback, three new interior linemen, and two new starting wide outs.
The admission likely didn’t come easily for Kiffin, considered by many in college football to be an offensive guru.
That’s part of what makes FAU’s defensive performance through four games this season, ranking the Owls as one of the worst in college football, so puzzling.
“It is surprising because of all the returners but also because we go against them all the time and that’s been a strength,” Kiffin said.
FAU returned 11 players on defense who started at least three games last season.
The Owls’ defense dominated the offense during spring practices and even into fall. The defensive line, especially, controlled the line of scrimmage disrupting plays and chasing quarterbacks.
The secondary took advantage of rushed throws by picking off ill-advised passes.
But once the season started, practice performance hasn’t carried over to games. And FAU enters Conference USA play this week having surrendered an average of 43.5 points per game. Only two teams in the nation are allowing more.
“I know we can do it because we showed it at times, to play well,” Kiffin said.
In replacing last year’s defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin, Tony Pecoraro brought a more aggressive scheme that seemed to favor FAU’s natural athleticism.
All too frequently, however, the Owls have looked more confused than aggressive.
“I think it’s just any relationship,” senior linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair said following Friday’s loss to No. 16 UCF. “I don’t care if you’ve got a new girlfriend, it takes time to mesh and get to know each other. Obviously it’s the same thing we’re doing now. I wouldn’t say it was that that really held us back, it was really just a lack of execution.”
Through four games, FAU managed six sacks. Only three of those are credited to defensive linemen – two for Ernest Bagner and the other to Tim Bonner.
Lacking a pass rush, opposing quarterbacks haven’t made the kinds of mistakes that lead to turnovers. Rashad Smith, a linebacker, owns both FAU interceptions on the season. Silver Saunders has the lone fumble recovery, that coming on kickoff coverage.
FAU didn’t expect to force many turnovers against Air Force, a team known for its discipline and ground attack, but Oklahoma, Bethune-Cookman and Central Florida combined to put the ball in the air 88 times. Only one of those passes came down in an FAU player’s hands.
McKenzie Milton, UCF’s Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback, completed 21 of his 32 pass attempts for 306 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Knights to a 56-36 victory over FAU on Friday.
“There were times where we just weren’t lined up right or the call wasn’t relayed to everybody,” Al-Shaair said.
The Owls have been playing shorthanded in recent games. Senior safety Jalen Young, who tied for second nationally last season with seven interceptions, missed the Bethune-Cookman game after suffering a knee injury against Air Force. He returned against UCF but played a step slow.
Defensive end Hunter Snyder, a preseason All-Conference USA selection and probably the Owls’ best pure pass rusher, also didn’t play against Bethune-Cookman because of an undisclosed injury that has hampered him since fall camp.
Kiffin called out the defensive backfield during Sunday’s weekly media conference call and noted that the entire defense isn’t tackling well in space.
Combine all those factors, and FAU’s defense isn’t looking like a strength at the moment.
“We’ve just got to play better,” Al-Shaair said.