Football: FAU’s young defense experiencing growing pains

The defense has allowed at least 28 points and 440 yards in every game this season.


FAU defensive lineman Hunter Snider (94) sacks 49ers quarterback Hasaan Klugh (16). Mohammed F. Emran | Staff Photographer

Hans Belot Jr., Contributing Writer

Coming out of the locker room, his eyes looking furious following the 33-31 loss at Florida International which happened just a mere 30 minutes earlier, senior defensive end Trey Hendrickson stood in silence before summarizing Florida Atlantic’s start to the season in just a few words.

‘We’re not losers,” Hendrickson said on Oct. 1 after the team lost its fourth straight game. “Our record isn’t showing that.”

For the second straight game, FAU (1-5) held a lead in the second half. For the second straight game, it ended in agony.

A week earlier, on Sept. 24, the Owls led Ball State by three points with the ball in the opponent’s territory and a little over six minutes remaining. However, the Owls struggled to capitalize and the Cardinals marched 70 yards downfield, scoring the game winning touchdown.

Fast forward to back to FIU — with little more than two minutes down in the third quarter, sophomore linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair intercepted a pass from FIU quarterback Alex McGough and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown that put the Owls up 24-14.

The final score ended up being 33-31 as the Panthers outscored the Owls 21-7 in the final 28 minutes of the game, once again breaking the hearts of the FAU fans who had attended.

As much as the blame can be shouldered on the offense for not putting the icing on the cake when they had their chance, the Owls defense did little to protect the lead as well.

FAU gave up 252 total yards after Al-Shaair’s interception, including the 48-yard drive early in the fourth quarter that gave the Panthers the lead for good.

“We did some good, set up two scores, and we did some bad, we gave them easy points,” said defensive coordinator Roc Bellantoni. We got to do a better job of getting off the field on third down.”

The “good” that coach Bellantoni referred was in reference to plays such as the pick-six that gave the Owls a 10-point lead early in the third quarter, as well as an interception by sophomore safety Jalen Young.

However, FAU’s “bad” defense was obvious. The unit allowed 270 rushing yards to the Panthers, while also allowing 33 points to a team that failed to score more than 14 in any of its first four games.

The next week, the defense allowed 28 points and 442 yards in a loss to Charlotte, who prior to the game was 0-9 against Conference USA teams and 1-14 against Football Bowl Subdivision teams in its program’s history.

It was the same story three weeks ago as well. Before visiting Kansas State, the Wildcats were 0-1 after losing 26-13 to Stanford in their opening game.

In the loss, the Wildcats finished the game with just 335 total yards on offense. Their next game versus the Owls, Kansas State finished with 336 rushing yards alone.

Coach Bellantoni said that the Wildcats weren’t doing anything FAU hasn’t seen before, but instead the Owls were making simple mistakes that could be fixed.

“We had some coverage busts,” said Bellantoni. “We got to be better at everything, tackling, covering our man, closing our gaps, rushing the passer.”

Out of 128 teams in the FBS, FAU ranks 120th in rushing defense and 119th in total defense.

FAU also ranks 113th in third-down defense. Those struggles proved costly when they failed to stop a third-and-11 with a little over two minutes against FIU, allowing a 14-yard pass completion from McGough to Thomas Owens when they were still in FIU territory.

A lot of things can be blamed for the Owls poor defensive start. Teams are double- and triple-teaming last year’s Conference USA sack leader Hendrickson and have limited him to only 1.5 sacks in the team’s first five games — he had 4.5 at the same time last year.

It could also be, as Bellantoni mentioned, simple things like missed tackles, missed assignments and blown coverages.

Youth is another factor. After all, five out of the seven starting backs are sophomores and this is the first year that these guys have started together.

“From our best guy to our last guy, everyone has to play better. We’re playing too many plays. Playing 84 snaps in a game is too much,” said Bellantoni. “A lot of people are forgetting these guys are just sophomores and they’re still learning and getting better. We just gotta do everything better.”

Al-Shaair, one of the team’s captains, took it upon himself after the loss to FIU to regroup the defense and the entire team in the locker room and have them take responsibility.

“It’s on us,” said Al-Shaair after the game. “Coach is going to call plays but it’s on us to execute out there.”

Though a largely young group of players, the defensive unit is not one to back away from challenges. As senior defensive tackle Shalom Ogbonda can attest, “The fight, the passion will always be there.”

“Nobody wants to win more than ourselves,” said Bellantoni. “Nobody’s putting more pressure on us than us. There’s no outside influences that’s gonna change how we prepare. We want to play better and we want to win because that’s what we do.”

However, clearly something is missing. Something is not clicking for the defense yet.

There are things the defense does well, however, such as creating turnovers. The Owls are tied for first in Conference USA in interceptions with six.

Sophomore defensive back Andrew Soroh has two himself, and last week sophomore safety Jalen Young added the first of his career as well as Al-Shaair’s pick-six.

Plays like these show the potential that the defense has. However, plays like the blown coverage on a third-and-11 also show that this defense has a lot to learn in order to reach its full potential.

Last season, the defense was one of the best in Conference USA, ranking sixth in scoring defense, sixth in pass defense and fourth in total defense.

Having players such as Brandin Bryant, Trevon Coley, Sharrod Neasman and Cre’von LeBlanc — all of whom are either on an NFL roster or NFL practice squad this fall — on last years roster definitely helped, but it also showed what a defense composed of players that have been playing together for a long time can do.

The defense is young, and according to Bellantoni, they’re still hungry and they want to be better. There is no doubt they are still growing and learning.

“We’re not losers,” Hendrickson repeated again. “We just want to win.”

Hans Belot Jr. is a contributing writer with the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @Don_Phenom_.