Commentary: FAU football gives Georgia its money’s worth for a half before folding 56-20

Rolando Rosa

Rolando Rosa

Ninety-four seconds.

That’s the surprising amount of time left in the first half when No. 7 ranked Georgia finally took a two-touchdown lead on FAU between the hedges at Sanford Stadium. Last week, I said this game would be a horror film, but nearing halftime this was shaping up to be the greatest movie of all time.

It was as if head coach Carl Pelini handed his Owls the “secret stuff” water bottle from Space Jam before they took the field Saturday night against the Monsters of Athens. The big, bad Bulldogs played more like timid poodles against FAU for the better part of the first half. Georgia brought in FAU to be the Washington Generals to their Harlem Globetrotters act, but the Owls did their best to flip the script.

However, there would be no Game of the Century upset by the Owls in a match that they shouldn’t have scheduled in the first place. FAU eventually fell to Georgia 56-20 (giving up a Bulldogs school-record 713 yards), but put together their most spirited performance of the season.

Georgia paid FAU $1 million to smack them around. So while the second half was atrocious (just 108 yards for the Owls after their first four possessions) and honestly what I expected the full game to resemble, that’s not what the focus should be — this went better than expected.

The Owls can learn more from this defeat than in its lone victory versus Wagner. There’s more pride in staying close with a top 10 team for a half than for squeaking by against a Division I-AA school.

Linebacker Randell Johnson told me at practice this week, playing at the Swamp last season against the Florida Gators prepared him for the wild atmosphere in Athens.

“It ain’t nothing we ain’t seen before. We’ve been to Florida. You see how we’re standing next to each other right now?” Johnson asked me. “At Florida, I couldn’t even hear you. It was real loud.”

So, if playing in front of a sellout crowd of 92,746 rowdy, crazed Georgia fans was nerve wracking, FAU didn’t show it, at least not for the first 30 minutes of gametime.

The Owls appeared loose and at ease as the game began, something not shocking to the coaching staff. To Owls defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis, football is football after kickoff, no matter the venue.

“Pregame is the time when the crowd and the stands and the environment kind of gets to you,” Rekstis said. “But once the ball is kicked, and you’re coming back to the sideline and getting coached and competing, you kind of forget where you are.”

And for a half, FAU forgot they were, well, FAU.

Consider this: FAU didn’t score a single first half point in the first two games of the season but were tied at 14 with a perennial SEC power early in the second quarter. The Owls connected on eight of their first 12 third downs after going 5-11 in last week’s loss to MTSU.

In the first half, FAU scored two touchdowns (one off a 43-yard dash by running back Damian Fortner, the other on a 2-yard touchdown catch by tight end Nexon Dorvilus) and controlled the ball for 20:14. Owls quarterback Graham Wilbert matched the more heralded Aaron Murray throw for throw, completing 11 of his first 16 passes.

“They’re doing a fine job,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt marveled to the sideline reporter at halftime. “Heck of a plan, and they’re executing well.”

The Bulldogs fans (some of whom were caught by the camera staring blankly into space) and broadcasters alike both shared puzzled disbelief that FAU, 43-point underdogs, were hanging tight.

“Georgia has to find a way to stop the suddenly potent Florida Atlantic offense,” the announcer remarked.

That’s a sentence I never imagined would be uttered by an SEC television crew.

“We came out pretty sharp,” Wilbert said to the Palm Beach Post, who finished 18 of 33 for 183 yards. “We really played well against a good SEC team.”

“I was confident coming into this game,” Owls head coach Carl Pelini said to the Palm Beach Post. “You could see signs of that all week in practice, the confidence our guys are picking up, the speed, the execution. The assignment mistakes are going away. We could be pretty good.”

But for as great as they were in the first half, after the break, FAU reverted to its bad habits in final 30 minutes. Georgia used a steady blend of pass and run to get separation on the scoreboard from the Owls. The Bulldogs finished with 385 yards passing and 328 yards rushing.

“They never overwhelmed us,” linebacker David Hinds said. “We just got to get more focused, communicate, line up where we’re supposed to line up, and key in what we’re supposed to key in on.”

The Owls defense has now allowed 87 points in the last two games. Suddenly, after averaging 18.5 points these last couple weeks, it’s FAU’s offense that has the upper hand.

“Defensively we still have a long way to go,” head coach Carl Pelini said. “Our offense made a jump this week that our defense didn’t.”

When Pelini decided to install the spread formation on offense and announce Stephen Curtis as his starter, he couldn’t have envisioned Wilbert to be the quarterback running it with ease.

That’s exactly what’s happening, though.

“Graham’s [Wilbert] a very smart quarterback,” Pelini said. “He is really learning this offense and he’s just going to keep getting better.”

The Owls have yet to put together a solid offensive and defensive showing for a full game this season. Don’t expect it to come next week, though. Not even FAU’s best Rocky impersonation will prevent the massive underdogs from an early round knockout by heavyweight and top-ranked Alabama on the road.

That doesn’t mean Pelini won’t prepare his team the same way like any other week. If the Owls play against Sun Belt foes with the level of intensity they brought to the first half tonight, they can still fulfill my five-win prediction.

“I think we can compete at that level,” Pelini said. “We did make some adjustments, and two and three weeks down the road, we’ll have more offense to go to. I think we’ll keep getting better, and I’m optimistic that we can continue to improve and compete as we go through the season.”

They will, but just don’t expect it to start until they return back to Boca.

FAU plays at No.1 ranked Alabama next Saturday, Sept. 22, at 5 p.m. The Owls next home game is on Sept. 29 against North Texas.