Middle Tennessee scored on a controversial Tavares Thomas fourth-down, one-yard run with 38 seconds left to pull within a point of FAU, then pulled off a miracle of a two-point conversion to hand the FAU its first Conference USA loss since Kiffin became the Owls’ coach.
“We’re just trying to digest screwing this thing up as bad as we can,” Kiffin told the ESPN West Palm postgame show. “There’s no way we should have lost this game.”
FAU let a 24-10 second half lead slip away. Playing at home with a veteran quarterback and owning all the momentum, MTSU coach Rick Stockstill elected to go for the win rather than play for overtime when replay couldn’t determine whether Thomas actually reached the ball across the goal line to pull MTSU within a point.
QB Brent Stockstill, Rick’s son, rolled left looking for anyone in an MTSU uniform to target. As FAU defensive end Leighton McCarthy bore down on him, Stockstill lofted a prayer of a pass into the end zone, where Gatlin Casey had managed to pull away from cornerback Chris Tooley. Casey leaped and snatched the ball – and it turns out, victory – out of the Tennessee air.
“I knew I couldn’t take a sack,” Stockstill said. “I just threw it up. The guy made a heck of a catch.”
The catch kept FAU from claiming its first victory in Murfreesboro since 2004. FAU’s lost to MTSU there on a Hail Mary completion and, in 2016, when the Blue Raiders ran out of quarterbacks but the Owls couldn’t defend the wildcat.
The loss is only made more shocking because of the way the game started. Slow starts plagued FAU much of the season, but the Owls came out blasting on Saturday. And FAU played what was arguably its best defensive game of the season, giving the Owls a chance to win.
After rolling to more than 300 yards of total offense in the first half, FAU managed only 86 yards of offense in the final two quarters.
“That second half was embarrassing,” Kiffin said.
FAU left little doubt early that it would rely on Devin Singletary. A 15-play drive on the game’s first possession ended with a 1-yard TD run that tied Singletary with D’Angelo Williams for the most career rushing touchdowns in C-USA history.
Singletary would grab that record all for himself later in the first quarter with a 10-yard touchdown run that gave FAU a 14-0 lead.
Quarterback Chris Robison delivered a strong first half, throwing for 117 yards and using his legs to give the Owls their third touchdown of the night on a 45-yard scamper on a read option keeper.
The second half was another story. FAU’s potent offense managed only one field goal over the final 30 minutes, and that was set up by a poor punt that gave the Owls possession inside the MTSU 30.
An ill-advised Robison pitch to Willie Wright that attempted fly from the hash marks to the numbers became a turnover for MTSU. Robison ended what little chance the Owls had at moving into field goal range in the closing seconds by throwing a fourth-down interception.
Kiffin admitted that Robison, who won a three-way quarterback battle in fall camp, isn’t progressing as quickly as he had hoped.
“No, not at all,” Kiffin said.