BOCA RATON – In the first two seasons under Charlie Partridge Florida Atlantic constantly found ways to fall short. Under the lights against Southern Illinois to open the 2016 season, Jason Driskel and friends didn’t have that problem.
FAU followed a first half that featured many big plays but little consistency with a much stronger second half, defeating Southern Illinois 38-30 – the first season-opening win for the Owls since 2012.
The victory combined with FAU’s victory over Old Dominion in the final game of 2015 marks the first time the Owls have won back-to-back games since a four-game winning streak to conclude the 2013 campaign.
“We’re excited to be 1-0, very excited that we accomplished our second mission – the first being completing fall camp, the second being the Southern Illinois game – and we accomplished that,” coach Charlie Partridge said.
The winner of the starting quarterback battle between himself and Daniel Parr, Driskel engineered two straight scoring drives to begin the second half – including a rushing touchdown of his own on a fourth and goal play from the 2. Driskel made plays with both his legs and feet throughout the evening, combining for over 300 all-purpose yards.
At halftime, Driskel had 167 of the team’s 265 total yards. Looking comfortable as the starter much of the night, Driskel threw for 287 passing with a 74.2 completion percentage, both positive sights to see in the first game of new offensive coordinator Travis Trickett’s scheme.
“Obviously, first game of the year everyone’s a little jittery – that’s natural, myself included – and in the second half, our whole offense as a unit, went out there and let it loose,” Driskel explained.
Jitters may be to blame for FAU’s erratic play in the first half, which ended with Southern Illinois boasting a 24-21 lead.
Poor tackling led to a 54-yard Josh Straughan-to-Connor Iwema catch and run that set up the Salukis’ first score. Atrocious tackling allowed DaQuan Isom to race 69 yards in the closing seconds of the second half when the Salukis appeared to be trying to run out the clock.
Southern Illinois racked up 329 yards of offense in the first half. FAU’s three touchdown plays in the first 30 minutes accounted for 170 yards. The other 31 plays they ran totaled only 95 yards.
“(The players) knew what the issues were,” Partridge said. “They knew what we had to do to get it fixed. We had to remind them of the details of the fundamentals – the style of our tackling, all those kinds of things. It got better in the second half – still not where we want it but it got better in the second half.”
Driskel and the Owls were much more consistent offensively in the second half. On the night he completed 23 of 31 attempts for 287 yards and two touchdowns to go with a rushing TD.
“I think he had a nice first outing of the 2016 season,” Partridge said. “He moved well in the pocket, he took advantage of running the ball at some critical times to either move the chains or put us in postion to move the chains, so it’s good to see him do things with his legs as well as to throw some nice balls with his arms.”
The fourth-and-goal play, arguably the turning point in FAU’s first season-opening win since a 13-7 final against Wagner in 2012, came on an intended pass play that Driskel instead turned into a rushing touchdown once he saw that there were no defenders in his way. Down three against a defense that had held the Owls’ offense up fairly well in the first half, the play call certainly was gutsy and, if executed improperly, could have resulted in FAU losing any momentum it may have had.
Of course, it wasn’t like Partridge minded the riskiness of the play call.
“I felt we could make it,” Partridge said. “Fourth and two, on top of the fact that if weren’t to make it, they had 98 yards to go and I felt good about how our defense was playing at the time.”
Three big plays gave the Owls their first 21 points. Junior running back Buddy Howell scored the first two touchdowns of the Owls’ season with 48 and 37 yard scampers in the first half. Entering the game with hopes of building off a successful end to 2015, Howell also nearly added a third touchdown early in the third quarter, but was called out of bounds at the three yard line.
“There’s a lot of things I’m very excited about after that game, starting with our offense,” Partridge said. “Our offense showed signs of explosion, especially on those runs by Buddy.”
Howell, who finished with just under 600 rushing yards a year ago, is already over a sixth of the way there after rushing for 128 yards in the opener.
“We went into the locker room [at halftime] and talked to each other; we know our assignments, we know our jobs and we do what we gotta do,” Howell said. “When we do what we gotta do, we’re very successful. We just went out there and kept playing fast – no huddle, no mercy – kept hitting them, and that’s how we created our rhythm.”
The highlight of the night, and one that could go down as one of the most memorable in program history, happened late in the second quarter when Tavaris ‘Pico’ Harrison turned a deflected pass intended for Kalib Woods into an 85-yard score. Bouncing around three times and almost certainly headed for the turf, Harrison appeared seemingly out of nowhere to catch the football and run it in for Driskel’s longest pass of the night.
“It was just fun to see a young player make a big play,” Partridge said. “It was fun to watch all the players congratulate him for the first big touchdown of his career. I don’t know who it bounced off but those plays are fun because we took advantage of it.”
When Southern Illinois tried to get back into the game early in the fourth quarter, star defensive end Trey Hendrickson not only came up with a sack, but blocked a field goal attempt from Austin Johnson to keep the score at 35-24. The Owls would capitalize that opportunity a 40 yard field goal from Greg Joseph.
Hendrickson, Conference USA’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, expects to make big plays.
“We kicked right because they put a tackle over, which put me in a good situation to get low on their guard who we’d watched,” said Hendrickson, a menacing presence in the backfield much of the night. “I knew that I’d drive because the kicker kicked low and the rest is history.”
Southern Illinois came within eight points after a Kyle Newquist 20 yard receiving pass from backup Sam Straub, but Johnson’s PAT missed. On their last possession, Straub completed a pass to Aaron Stanton that Ocie Rose forced out. Jalen Rose recovered the fumble and FAU ran out the clock.
GAME BROWSER: FAU 38, Southern Illinois 30
FAU trailed 24-21 at halftime in part because the Owls tackled poorly in the first half, leading to big plays fo the Salukis. The offense did hit some big plays in the first half but lacked consistency. They were much better in both aspects following halftime.
- The Owls struggling in the first half against an FCS school wasn’t loss on Partridge or his players. While many coaches likely would have lost their cool at halftime or even in the postgame press conference, Partridge admitted, “We didn’t have to get after them at halftime. We reminded them to do the things that we witnessed them do so well all camp: tackle better, defeat blocks … very simple things that we’ve trained to do.”
- Despite the loss of left tackle Reggie Bain last week, right guard Antonyo Woods on Tuesday, and Woods’ replacement, Matthew Weiner, during the game itself, the Owls’ offensive line play on Saturday night was surprisingly productive. Not only were they able to make holes for Buddy Howell during his electric runs, but they also kept Jason Driskel upright all night long, allowing only two sacks.
- The Owls’ heavy focus on tackling in fall camp didn’t have the same success on Saturday night that the offensive line did. Whether on Isom’s 69-yard TD run in the closing seconds of the first half or on smaller, less impactful plays, the Owls really had problems wrapping up their men and bring them down. If the Owls don’t improve their tackling next week, Miami, which beat Florida A&M 70-3 on Saturday, will tear the Owls’ defense to shreds.
- Easily the biggest surprise in FAU’s game plan was the lack of touches to senior running back Jay Warren, who is part of a ‘dynamic duo’ with Buddy Howell and had an excellent fall camp. Warren received only one carry on Saturday while Kerrith Whyte Jr. had 11 carries for 20 yards – 10 of which came on one carry. Partridge confirmed after the game that Warren was healthy.
0 – Snaps taken by guard Antonyo Woods and WR Nate Terry, neither of whom dressed for the game because of undisclosed injuries.
1 – Carry by senior running back Jay Warren in the whole game for the Owls. Coach Charlie Partridge confirmed after the game that Warren was healthy.
3 – Times the Owls have won their home opener at Howard Schnellenberger Field, adding today’s win to the win over Tulsa in 2014 and the 2012 game versus Wagner.
4.2 – Yards Southern Illinois averaged on their rush attempts.
6 — Times the Owls have won season openers in program history.
7 – Kickoffs by punter Dalton Schomp. Starting placekicker Greg Joseph was slowed in camp by an undisclosed injury. He converted all five PATs and made a 40-yard field goal.
10 – Tackles by Azeez Al-Shaair to lead the Owls.
87 – Yards Buddy Howell had on just three carries in the first quarter.
328 – total yards compiled by QB Jason Driskel on Saturday night.
530 – Total yards allowed by FAU to Southern Illinois.
14.887 – Announced attendance for Saturday’s game.
$390,000 – Guaranteed to SIU by FAU for playing in Boca Raton.
FAU makes the short trip south to Miami Gardens on Saturday where they’ll face the Miami Hurricanes. Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m.