Defensive masterpiece

Franco Panizo

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BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – When Western Kentucky running back Bobby Rainey scored on the Hilltoppers’ opening drive, it appeared that FAU was in for a long day against its Sun Belt Conference foes.

Thankfully for FAU, that wasn’t the case.

While Rainey enjoyed a strong performance against the Owls, it was WKU that grew frustrated as the Owls’ ever-improving defense came up big time and time again in a 17-16 victory on a frigid night at L.T. Smith Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 6.

On a day when the Owls’ offense struggled mightily – despite scoring a pair of nice touchdowns – the defense proved its worth, limiting the Hilltoppers to 268 yards and 14 points (the other two points came courtesy of a safety).

“This was a masterpiece for our defense, who played an outstanding football game against a very determined offensive unit,” said head coach Howard Schnellenberger. “It’s good to see the defense play winning football even when the offense isn’t.”

FAU’s offense played anything but winning football. In one of the worst performances of its season, the offense put up just 140 passing yards and 75 rushing. To make matters worse, the unit coughed up the ball twice in its own territory, once off a Jeff Van Camp interception and the other off an Alfred Morris fumble.

The defense held tight, however, and did enough for the Owls to squeak by with a one-point victory.

“If we would have did this in the beginning of the year we probably would have won a couple more games,” said linebacker Michael Lockley, who finished the game with a team-high 11 tackles.

The win improved FAU to 3-5 on the season and 2-3 in conference games, leaving the Hilltoppers (1-8, 1-4) as the lone cellmates in the Sun Belt’s dungeon. The victory was also the second consecutive for the Owls, who enjoyed a special visit from a familiar face.

Former Owls quarterback and current Tennessee Titan Rusty Smith visited FAU at the team hotel when it arrived in Bowling Green, and was also on the sidelines rooting on his former teammates on Saturday.

“That was a pleasant surprise, seeing Rusty Smith taking time [away] from his busy schedule in the NFL to come see us play,” said Lockley. “We definitely like to see him around.”

For Smith, it was likely tough watching the Owls’ offense sputter, especially considering the numbers he put up when he was the focal point of the unit. But Smith surely must have enjoyed both of FAU’s scores, scores that were as impressive as they were vital for the Owls.

Having fallen behind 7-0 early in the game, FAU responded late in the first when Morris detected the rare opening of a big gap before making a cut and running into the end zone untouched from 19 yards out.

“I kind of predetermined the cut because I knew they was overflowing a lot,” said Morris, who had 25 carries for 68 yards and became the second leading rusher in FAU history with his performance. “I walked in. That was probably the easiest touchdown I’ve ever had.”

In the second quarter, after the Owls had given Western Kentucky the lead through a botched snap that resulted in a safety, FAU hit back with a 62-yard pass from Van Camp to wide receiver Lester Jean to make the score 14-9.

“I thought [Van Camp] threw a meteorite,” said Schnellenberger of the pass. “He threw it out of the stratosphere and it fell back to earth right into [Jean’s] hands.”

Kicker Ross Gornall tacked on the game-winning field goal from 26 yards out in the fourth quarter, and FAU’s defense took care of the rest.

The Owls not only stymied Rainey and company from getting much penetration, but they also came up with a critical turnover when cornerback Tavious Polo intercepted a deep pass from Kawaun Jakes in the end zone.

That was good enough to preserve the win, and should be reason enough for Owls fans to feel confident that this team can close out the season on a positive note.

Of the four games remaining, two are winnable, and an upset of Troy – while unlikely – may not be out of the question.

Not as long as this defense continues to improve on its play from the past two weeks.

Want to attend?

The Owls play their next game at home:

What: University of Louisiana at Lafayette vs. FAU

When: 7 p.m.

Where: Lockhart Stadium, Fort Lauderdale

For more info: www.fausports.com