FAU blows out USF, 28-10, to earn first win of season

Zack Kelberman

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It’s amazing what some stability can do for a football team.

With sophomore Jaquez Johnson entrenched as the starting quarterback, FAU (1-2) upset USF (0-3), 28-10, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Saturday night.

Johnson finished the game 10-of-17 for 98 yards and an interception. He also ran for 55 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown in his first career NCAA victory, which he attributed to his teammates.

“Everybody came out and everybody played hard,” Johnson said. “We never quit and never stopped playing hard.”

Unlike the previous two games this season FAU Head Coach Carl Pelini didn’t rotate Johnson with freshman Greg Hankerson, ending the much-discussed QB carousel as expected.

“I didn’t necessarily know I’d be [the starter],” Johnson said.

Operating as 13-point underdogs, FAU’s first win of the year –– and second road win of the Pelini era –– was aided by the Owls’ ultra-aggressive defense, which recorded two sacks, forced three turnovers, and accounted for two touchdowns.

One of the stars of the game, Owls cornerback DJ Smith, who forced a fumble and scored on an interception return, said the defensive performance wasn’t unexpected.

“First it came from practice,” Smith said. “We practice real hard and our preparation was probably the best we had all season. We came in with the expectation that we need to make plays.”

The defense’s first score came five minutes into the first quarter, when defensive end Cory Henry recorded a sack/fumble and took it back 10-yards. It gave FAU an early 7-0 advantage, their first lead of any sort all season.

“It was just a good play,” Pelini said. “Just to get that boost of energy that early in the game is big. It ignited our sidelines a little bit.”

On that play, Henry was in the right place at the right time.

“Basically, I did my assignment,” Henry said. “I came up the field, squeezed inside, and the ball just popped out. I scooped it up, ran, and every step I got closer, I was surprised I’m getting to the touchdown.”

Soon after USF cut the deficit to 7-3, Johnson committed his only mistake of the game, throwing an interception off of a deflected pass. This gave the Bulls a short field and they capitalized, as quarterback Steven Bench threw a 25-yard touchdown pass and gave the Bulls a 10-7 lead.

“I still got to work on the little things,” Johnson said. “I make sure I watch an hour of film every week and fix the small things. I’m just trying to get better every game.”

It looked as if USF would add to the lead early in the second quarter as they were marching down the field. But FAU’s defense pitched a goal line stand on the one-yard line, preventing a touchdown and forcing a turnover on downs.

Both teams traded punts for much of the second quarter until Johnson put together his best drive of the game.

Backed up on his own 20-yard line, Johnson led the team the length of the field in under three minutes, scoring on a four-yard quarterback rush on fourth and goal. FAU took a 14-10 lead into halftime and well into the third quarter.

Just as USF was starting to threaten, the Owls’ defense again stepped up.

As Bench dropped back to pass, Smith came on a blitz, knocking the ball loose for defensive end Martin Wright to pounce on.

This turnover provided FAU the chance to blow the game open –– and Johnson seized the opportunity. Seven plays after recovering the fumble, a one-yard Wallace touchdown opened the Owls’ lead to 21-10. Wallace finished with 13 carries for 65 yards and the TD.

“As you can see, we came out with confidence,” Smith said. “We were able to make plays and came out with a victory today. It shows that we can really play with anybody if we just come with that focus to every game.”

Providing the final nail in the coffin, Smith intercepted a Bench pass with three minutes left in the game, returning it 75 yards for a score.

“The sky’s the limit for DJ,” Pelini said. “I keep saying that. He is as good as DJ wants to be. He keeps working hard, is focused, he’s getting better and better. We expect him to make those big plays.”

Smith’s outing, among other positives from the night, prompted an enthusiastic Pelini to gush over next week’s home opener.

“We’re excited to come home and play in front of our crowd,” Pelini said. “Hopefully we get a good turnout and give these guys a reward they deserve for coming on the road and having a big win like this.”