Commentary: FAU escapes with 34-27 Homecoming victory over Troy

Rolando Rosa

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After six straight losing weeks of padding his stats but coming up empty in the win column, Owls quarterback Graham Wilbert could now exhale. He could bask in the glow of the first Sun Belt victory of his college career.

His four-touchdown performance and 22-yard game-winning pass to William Dukes with 17 seconds left resulted in a narrow 34-27 Homecoming victory over Troy. Winning is a rare feat for Wilbert, so he finally got to fire back at his (imagined) critics.

“A lot of people outside are talking about this and that, thinking they know what’s best,” he shot back. “We’ve been improving every week and finally got a done deal.”

Good for Wilbert, though, and even better for an Owls team that was starving for a win.

So after weeks of coming up short in heartbreaking fashion, FAU was finally able to close a game out. Their 14-game Sun Belt losing streak (the longest in the conference’s history) is snapped. They’ve beaten Troy at home for the first time.

After a crushing double overtime loss to South Alabama, head coach Carl Pelini didn’t dwell on negatives.

“The key is, we didn’t talk about it as a demoralizing loss. We talked about it as a missed opportunity. But look how close we’re getting. Despite the disappointment [of weeks past] we tried to build on the positives of last week. I think it carried over into the preparation,” Pelini said. “I said after Tuesday’s practice that that was one of the best ones we’ve had all year, especially offensively and it showed tonight.”

Nothing is easy with the Owls, however. For 24 minutes of football, FAU looked like a different team. They raced out to a 17-0 lead (the largest of the season for FAU) in the first half and it looked like a win was all but certain. Wilbert hit Owls’ tight end birthday boy Nexon Dorvilus for two touchdowns and the sparse looking crowd — FAU announced an 11,968 attendance, though my eyes saw fewer than 5,00 thousand actually there — were given a reason to celebrate.

Then, Troy tried their best to impersonate last week’s comeback win against FIU. Troy scored 17 unanswered points to tie FAU going into halftime. They then took the lead with 1:49 left in the fourth quarter on a 31-yard run up the middle by running back Shawn Southward.

It was starting to look like a repeat of FAU’s melt down from last week, but Pelini prepared his squad to endure the furious rally he expected from Troy.

“We’ve got two opportunities now. We were in that same spot against North Texas. We were in the same spot against South Alabama,” Pelini said of his thought process going into the final drive. “I told the guys at halftime that this was going to come down to the final possession and it did. You just need to get over that hump. And that’s what I was thinking. Let’s get over that hump.”

Wilbert completed six passes on the final nine-play, 74-yard drive. Originally, the intention was to milk the clock and kick a field goal, but after last week’s kicking debacle (Mitch Anderson had three field goals blocked, his first week as FAU’s kicker after starter Vinny Zaccario was dismissed from the team), Pelini had a different plan in mind.

“Once we got into that field goal range I just said, [Offensive coordinator] Brian [Wright] let’s take a shot,” Pelini said. “Because we don’t want to leave it in the kicker’s hands with the wind.”

“We were playing for a field goal and then I just took a shot with Dukes,” Wilbert said. “He made the play and held on and did a great job. That’s the game.”

Pelini actually had a strong feeling the game would come down to this, even throughout the week. He said after the game that the team ran a practice two-minute drill with 1:45 remaining. Tonight’s two-minute drill came down to the last — believe it or not — 1:46 of the game remaining.

Players were anticipating a tight contest as well.

“In practice all week we’ve been working two minute drills. We knew it was going to come down to that and be a hard game,” Owls’ receiver Jenson Stoshak (who scored his first career touchdown in the third quarter) said. “The two-minute drill came in handy so it was good. We never practice two-minute drills so in this event that it happened it was perfect timing.”

All season long, Pelini has preached endurance to his players while they continued to lose. Even though some players cried after the loss to South Alabama, they bounced back with what he called their best practice of the season. Pelini realizes motivation can be hard to muster up when the losses start piling on, so he’s grateful for the team’s first win against an D-1 team this year.

“It’s hard to keep pointing to the positives when they don’t manifest themselves in wins. You know, the fans get tired of hearing it,” Pelini said. “This is good. This is the surge of adrenaline we needed to keep that going. This group I’m proud of them. The way they’ve stuck to it. They’re hasn’t been any letdown in terms of their work ethic.”

For at least one week, FAU players could take pride in their accomplishment. Maybe it’ll even spark a resurgence the final four games.

“It shows what happens when we stay the course. When we just keep going and going and going no matter what. Through all the trials and tribulations. Through all the lessons,” Nexon Dorvilus said. “This can happen — we can actually win. It was good for everybody to see that.”

After 14 straight conference losses, Owls fans would agree.