Football: Owls lose 1st on-campus Shula Bowl 34-24 to FIU in lightning-delayed game

Zack Kelberman

Quarterback Graham Wilbert threw for 403 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in FAU’s 34-24 loss to FIU on Friday night. The interception was Wilbert’s first in his last 250 attempts. Photo by Michelle Friswell

Before the season, senior David Hinds promised the Owls would recapture the Shula Bowl trophy.

Hindsight wasn’t 20/20.

For the second straight season, the Owls have lost to FIU and failed to form a winning streak.

In a nationally televised home game that featured just about everything — including the Owls’ heartbreaking nature – FAU lost to its Sun Belt conference rivals, the Florida International Panthers, 34-24.

“We just … we left a lot out there,” Hinds said. “I feel like we had a good game plan on them, but we just didn’t get the job done.”

With the loss, which was marred by rainy weather and 25-minute stoppage of play, the Owls dropped to 3-8 on the season, 2-5 in conference play and 8-3 against their longtime – and now defunct – Shula Bowl opponent.

The game itself wasn’t pretty (a postmark of the Owls’ 2012 campaign), and it was one that FAU coach Carl Pelini and his club let slip through its collective grasp.

FAU finished with negative 11 rushing yards, an abysmal statistic that obviously frustrated Pelini.

“We felt like we could run the ball, it was important for us to be able to run the ball in order to get our passing game going,” Pelini said. “They were more physical than we were up front tonight, and I didn’t think we executed the running game very well. Didn’t think we were physical enough to run the ball.”

FAU’s defense gave up 431 yards of total offense to FIU on Friday night. Photo by Melissa Landolfa

The writing was on the wall early, as FIU quarterback Jake Medlock single-handedly led his offense down the field, capping off a nine play, 99-yard scoring drive with a 38-yard TD toss to receiver Willis Wright on the team’s opening possession.

There’d be no more scoring in a first quarter simply dominated by the Panthers, who racked up five first downs and 108 total yards (compared to 28 for the Owls).

FAU responded five minutes into the second quarter. Quarterback Graham Wilbert hooked up with tight end Daniel McKinney for a 38-yard gain through the air, and then found tight end Nexon Dorvilus for a 17-yard touchdown, knotting the contest at 7-7 on the 58-yard drive.

Almost instantaneously, however, FIU answered back.

On the next possession, Medlock went on a methodical 73-yard drive, which saw him pick apart FAU’s secondary with relative ease. In 4:17, after guard Rupert Bryan Jr. reeled in a lateral, FIU retook the lead 14-7.

Aided by a fumble on a punt return by FIU, the Owls would get the ball back with excellent field position on the Panthers’ 33, but had to settle for a 37-yard field goal by Mitch Anderson. The half ended with FIU leading 14-10.

After lightning impacted the beginning of the second half, the Owls climbed back into the driver’s seat.

Set up by a 47-yard completion to receiver William Dukes and a 15-yarder to McKinney, FAU established their first and only lead on the heels of a 1-yard TD plunge by running back Jonathan Wallace, putting them ahead 17-14.

The advantage would be short-lived, lasting just 13 seconds. It eviscerated when FIU cornerback Richard Leonard returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards to give the Panthers a 20-17 lead they wouldn’t again relinquish.

Head coach Carl Pelini is now 3-8 on the year after Friday’s 34-24 loss to rival FIU. Last year, FAU went just 1-11. Photo by Michelle Friswell

Carl Pelini admitted that play, which was the longest FAU’s ever let up, ultimately broke his team’s back.

“That’s gotta be fixed,” Pelini said of the kickoff return. “As much [time] as we spend on special teams, that should never happen.”

FIU would extend the score to 27-17 following another long drive — 11 plays, 73 yards. Medlock completed his second TD pass, a 15-yarder to receiver Wayne Times.

Once more, FAU presented the appearance of hope, with a 60-yard quick-strike touchdown from Graham Wilbert to Jenson Stoshak, cutting the deficit to 27-24.

And, once more, FIU, going 71 yards in nine plays, squashed any and all momentum, as running back Kedrick Rhodes punched in a 1-yard touchdown, giving the Panthers a 34-24, game-clinching stronghold.

Although the outcome was not in FAU’s favor, there were still some brights spot on an otherwise gloomy night.

Wilbert, despite tossing his first interception in 250 attempts, finished with a career-high 403 passing yards. The aerial attack produced two 100-yard receivers: William Dukes (6 receptions, 116 yards) and Stoshak (5, 108), who started in place of Byron Hankerson.

But the negatives, as they always do in losses, take precedence over the positives. The Owls surrendered several big plays on defense, were outgained in total yards (431 to 391) and the aforementioned lack of a rushing attack was a huge detriment.

Heading into their bye, the Owls will look to recharge.

“I thought we looked like a tired football team,” Pelini said. “You just gotta get yourself ready to play.”

FAU concludes the season at home against Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday, Dec. 1 at 3 p.m.