Commentary: After blowing a 14-point fourth quarter lead to first-year D-1 program South Alabama, FAU’s hope looks bleak

Rolando Rosa

After five straight weeks of defeats for the Owls, Saturday’s game at new Sun Belt school South Alabama was down to this:

Fourth-and-7 at the South Alabama 36-yard line. FAU is up 31-24 with under three minutes to go. The Owls let a 14-point lead slip away, but the opportunity to ruin South Alabama’s Homecoming is still there for the taking.

“Pretty basic task for FAU — stop ‘em and win the game,” ESPN 760 color commentator Jason Pugh said.

However, as anyone who’s watched FAU football the past couple seasons knows, few things are basic and hardly anything comes easy for the Owls.

So it should come as no surprise FAU defender Christian Milstead committed a pass interference penalty on that fourth down to keep the Jaguars drive going. And it shouldn’t be a shock South Alabama wide receiver Gabe Loper punched it in five plays later with a 16-yard one-handed grab to tie the game at 31 with a minute remaining.

It shouldn’t catch anyone off-guard either that after the tying touchdown, Graham Wilbert (who had a career high 303 passing yards) marched the Owls down the field to set up a game-winning field goal, only for FAU kicker Mitch Anderson to get blocked and send the game into overtime.

“When does the heartbreak end with this program?” Ken LaVicka asked during his radio call on ESPN 760.

The 37-34 double overtime loss to South Alabama was many things: frustrating, heartbreaking, dumbfounding. Yet, one thing it wasn’t? Surprising.

When Jaguars kicker Michel Chapuseaux made his 35-yard attempt in double overtime to end the game, the collective groins of Owls’ fans across Boca were delivered another painful blow.

LaVicka perfectly summed up the frustration after the shanked kick, one of Anderson’s three blocked attempts of the game.

“These last 16 months for FAU football has been a completely bang-your-head-against-the-wall ordeal,” LaVicka said.

Consider this: The Owls haven’t won a conference game since November 2010 at Louisiana-Lafayette. They haven’t won a road game dating back to November 2010 against Western Kentucky.

The Owls still haven’t learned from their mistakes, continuing to find numerous ways to extend these embarrassing streaks.

While the Owls had no turnovers for the game, it was their late penalties which were costly. Numerous pass interferences miscues in the fourth quarter created ample opportunities for South Alabama to make their comeback. On the Jaguars two fourth quarter TD drives to tie the game, FAU committed four penalties to set up the tie.

Seven games into the season, a full game of consistency shouldn’t be too much to ask for. Heading into this matchup, FAU had trouble finding its offensive rhythm until late in games, but this time it was the reverse happening.

The Owls started out the game by scoring touchdowns on their first two drives. The scores by running backs Jonathan Wallace and Martese Jackson were the first FAU first quarter touchdowns of the season. At 17-14, the Owls even took their first halftime lead of the season into the break.

The first three quarters were an optical illusion. It doesn’t matter that Wilbert had the most passing yards in a game since Rusty Smith in October of 2009, or that Wallace (101 rushing yards and his first college touchdown) and William Dukes (119 receiving yards) had career games.

Stats don’t always tell the story.

The fourth quarter better represents the true 2012 Owls. In the final three-drive stretch of regulation, the offense remembered they were No. 122 in the country in points scored per game and started playing like it. As usual.

The results of those final three drives: punt, punt, blocked FG attempt.

No one expected FAU to be a winning team this year, but the Owls have let fans, students, alumni and, most importantly, themselves down all year long. Head coach Carl Pelini keeps preaching endurance to his players. Well, they’re going to need a lot of it because the Owls aren’t going to win a game the rest of the season.

The Athletics Department should wear ski masks at the Homecoming game next week, because they’re robbing the few fans they have of their money. The product currently being put on the field doesn’t deserve to play in its new stadium. If they can’t beat South Alabama (who picked up their first-ever win against a D-1 opponent), there’s no reason to have faith in any victories for the final five games of the season.

It doesn’t matter what kind of spin the coaching staff wants to put on it.

“The theme for the year is endurance,” Owls running backs coach Kerry Dixon said to ESPN 760. “We have to endure through the hard times.”

They eventually will — but it isn’t happening this year.