Commentary: FAU falls 31-17 to Middle Tennessee

Rolando Rosa

It’s too bad junior transfer quarterback Melvin German is ineligible this season, because MGIII’s bandwagon is about to gain a ton of passengers.

Two games in, the Owls offense has scored three touchdowns, all coming in the fourth quarter.

The lack of offensive production is staggering. Head coach Carl Pelini needs to pull a Houdini and hypnotize the Owls into believing every quarter is the fourth, because that’s the only time the offense delivers any excitement.

The Owls (1-1) lost 31-17 on the road to Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in its Sun Belt Conference opener. By the end of three quarters, FAU was trailing 24-3. Pelini’s assessment of his team after two games was sharper than anything witnessed on the field so far in 2012.

FAU quarterback Graham Wilbert (pictured at the MTSU game on Saturday, Sept. 8) completed his first 11 passes, breaking the team record of 10 set by Rusty Smith in 2007. Wilbert is 1-11 as a starter in his college career. Photo courtesy of Ralph Notaro.

“Where we are right now as a football program, we’ve just got to keep studying the film, trying to get better,” Pelini said. “Finding the guys that we could put out there that are going to compete. We’re just not a very good football team right now.”

Graham Wilbert got the nod against Middle Tennessee and put on his best Logan Kilgore (who completed 18 straight passes in MTSU’s win last season) impersonation, completing his first 11 passes, an FAU record. By his standards, it was a career day. By the scoreboard, it was more of the same for Wilbert — another loss.

“Graham would be the first one to tell you, it wasn’t well enough to win,” Owls offensive coordinator Brian Wright said. “So, first and foremost, we’ve got to find ways to get better at the quarterback position and all the positions right now on offense. Come out and execute better and have a better performance than that.”

This was the perfect example of how numbers can lie. Wilbert had 260 yards. But he racked up his pair of TDs in garbage time, one to budding target Byron Hankerson, the other to running back Damian Fortner.

“We talked about finishing and winning the fourth quarter battle,” Wright said. “But it’s no different than in the first half. We tried to throw the football in the first half as well. We didn’t execute well enough in the first half on some of the throws.”

The Owls need to bring more energy to the first half of games if they’re going to win a game against a Division I team this year. The defense allowed just 10 points in the season’s first six quarters before imploding in the second half against Middle Tennessee.

“A lack of execution on offense in the first half. Our defense battled back a little bit, got some turnovers,” Pelini said. “But it’s easy to execute when the pressure’s off. Once we got down by 21, everyone’s loose. A hard thing for a young program is to execute when it’s still a close ballgame.”

Wright said afterwards that his methodical play calling was actually intended to build Wilbert’s confidence.

I’m sorry, but Wilbert is a fifth-year senior, and if he doesn’t already have confidence, he’s not getting it now. He has the size (6’6, 225 pounds) and the arm strength to dominate, which is why his struggles are so baffling.

Wilbert has shown flashes of greatness in spurts, but he’s started a dozen games in two seasons and has only won once.

Once.

Yes, there were dropped passes in the game, but a quarterback completing a ton of throws and not scoring points until the game is out of reach doesn’t impress me.

To at least remain competitive this season, the offense needs to put more points on the board, preferably in the first half.

FAU punt returner Keith Reaser had -10 yards on two returns. For the season the Owls are averaging 3.2 yards on punt returns. Photo courtesy of Drew Gardonia from MTSU Sidelines.

Here’s a bold move for coach Pelini — since the Owls are going to get blown out next week anyway — either start airing it out deep with Wilbert or turn to third stringer Nick Bracewell at seventh-ranked Georgia. No more of this bland vanilla offense that doesn’t take shots down the field.

The first half of the Sun Belt opener between FAU and Middle Tennessee resembled a Division I-AA game, but the Owls defense kept the score close before burning out after halftime.

The two worst Sun Belt squads in last season played Division I-AA teams in week one — FAU squeaked out a victory over Wagner and Middle Tennessee fell to McNeese State. Instead of using the games as a wake up call, both teams set out in the first half to actually make the case to be demoted down a division.

MTSU took a 7-0 lead into the half, as FAU was shut out for the second straight game at halftime. Only a opportunistic bend-but-don’t-break defense saved the Owls from a larger deficit.

On the Blue Raiders first two drives of the game, they reached the red zone before coughing up the ball to FAU’s senior tandem of Jimmy Jean and David Hinds.

Middle Tennessee reached into FAU territory on its first three drives but only came away with a TD on a 38-yard pass from Kilgore. The stats will show the Owls gave up four touchdowns, but the boxscore won’t capture the frustration the defense must be feeling towards their offensive counterparts.

I guarantee if the Owls scored any points in the first half of contests, the defense would be more refreshed and motivated to finish out games. It took a 39-yard field goal by Vinnie Zaccario in the third for the Owls to score its first points against the Blue Raiders.

Pelini said in training camp there would be as many as five running backs used. With that said, it’s never a good sign when Wilbert is your third leading rusher with 19 yards, 18 on one run.

“Wilbert does not make a living with his legs,” the Middle Tennessee announcer deadpanned.

This was a prime opportunity to capture the first two-game winning streak in three years. Instead, it’s off to get smashed back-to-back weeks on the road at Georgia and at defending national champion Alabama.

Unless you enjoy horror movies, I’d advise other programming the next two Saturdays.