Owls close out 3-9 season with 35-21 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette

Zack Kelberman

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On August 31, the Owls began the 2012 campaign with a 7-3 win over Wagner, matching their entire win total from the previous year.

But, exactly three months later, things didn’t end in the same positive manner.

“We hurt ourselves over and over again tonight,” coach Carl Pelini said. “As a football team, in order to take the next step in progression, that’s got to end. That’s on me.”

In Saturday’s season finale at FAU Football Stadium, the Owls were defeated by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns, 35-21, sending the 13 senior players off with one last loss.

FAU finishes an up-and-down year with a 3-9 overall record (2-6 in Sun Belt Conference play) and 2-3 mark at home.

Despite the outcome, the afternoon largely belonged to Owls’ receiver William Dukes, who turned in one of the finest performances in school history – on a bum ankle, no less.

“It just developed throughout the course of the game,” Dukes said of his record-setting effort. “(Quarterback) Graham (Wilbert) and I got a connection. Everyone stepped up and everyone worked hard.”

The 6-foot-4 sophomore recorded nine catches for 204 yards – averaging 22.7 yards-per-reception – and two touchdowns, flashing solid separation and ball skills. Dukes shattered the single-game receiving record previously held by Anthony Crissinger-Hill (183 yards in 2004).

“He’s got great length, he catches the ball away from his body. That’s something that’s innate and hard to teach,” Pelini said of Dukes. “He can be as great as he wants to be.”

Also, Wilbert, one of the aforementioned seniors, had another big outing, completing 25 passes for 379 yards and two touchdowns. His two blemishes were a pair of interceptions, killer mistakes against the eight-win Ragin’ Cajuns.

However, the Owls were thoroughly beaten by a superior opponent who had already accepted a bid into a bowl game and with nothing of note to gain.

To their credit, though, FAU kept it relatively close and even led after the first quarter, giving the home crowd hope.

Following a 77-yard scoring run by ULL quarterback Terrance Broadway, which put them up 7-0, the Owls quickly responded on their first play from the scrimmage. Wilbert hooked up with Dukes for a picture-perfect 75-yard touchdown, knotting the game at 7-7.

Then, with 37 seconds left in the first quarter, running back Jonathan Wallace scored on an 11-yard run. Wallace’s scamper capped off an impressive 13-play, 95-yard drive that took 4:51 off the clock and gave the Owls a 14-7 advantage.

It would be the last time FAU held a lead.

Whereas the Owls failed to score in the second quarter, the Ragin’ Cajuns tied things up with a 9-yard touchdown by running back Alonzo Harris – his first of three TDs. And with a 10-play, 96-yard march, ULL reached paydirt seconds before the half, as Broadway connected with receiver James Butler from 15 yards out.

Louisiana-Lafayette went up 21-14 and never had to look back.

For good measure, the Ragin’ Cajuns tacked on another touchdown midway through the third quarter, gaining a 28-14 stronghold over the Owls.

FAU’s lone second half score came two minutes into the fourth quarter, with Wilbert hitting Dukes from 42 yards out, cutting the deficit to 28-21.

After a pair of punts, any chance of an Owls’ comeback was put to rest. Harris completed the trifecta with a 2-yard TD plunge, basically ending the game at 35-21 and ensuring the win for ULL.

Looking at the box score, it’s fair to wonder how FAU lost. They gained more first downs (24-21) and more total yards (528 to 452), despite running two less plays and possessing the ball for nearly five less minutes.

But in the end, general sloppiness, turnovers (3) and penalties (10) were the main catalysts in the Owls’ defeat. They’ve made the same self-inflicting wounds in other games, and the result was the same.

“Killed us,” Pelini angrily said of the blunders. “I told the guys after the game, ‘that’s a bowl team out there.’ Not because they’re better athletically or had better schemes, but they don’t hurt themselves. We took ourselves out of drives with mistakes.”