Heading into its bye week, FAU football already has the same amount of wins as it did all of last season. However, after winning the season opener against Wagner, the Owls are currently on a four-game losing streak going into their Oct. 13 match at ULM.
Here’s the UP’s graded rundown of the first five games of the season:
Most surprising aspect: Graham Wilbert’s running
If a person was asked who had the third longest run for the Owls, they’d give the obvious answers: Damian Fortner, Martese Jackson. Maybe even Stephen Curtis. Think again. It’s Graham Wilbert. To prepare for the spread offense, Wilbert said he worked on his lateral movement in the offseason. While he’s far from a natural on the ground, his efforts are paying off. Inserted at starter over the more fleet-footed Curtis, Wilbert has methodically churned his way for long gains this season, punctuated by his 23-yard first down against North Texas. Wilbert has 57 rushing yards this season after having -144 yards last year.
The only reason the offense didn’t receive an F is because of its touchdowns against Alabama and Georgia. Besides those lone shining moments, this unit has vastly underperformed. The offense only scored seven points against Wagner despite being favored by 17.5 points. It took the Owls until the fourth quarter to score the touchdown. Offensive coordinator Brian Wright’s spread offense was supposed to cure the woes of last season’s stagnant pro style system.
Instead, FAU is averaging just 13 points per game, a whopping 0.1 higher than 2011 (12.9 ppg). The Owls offense is struggling tremendously at the beginning of games. FAU has more points in the fourth quarter (41) than the other three quarters combined (24). Quarterback Stephen Curtis was the opening game starter but was benched at halftime after completing 4 of 10 passes for 37 yards. He’s only played sparingly since, mostly in the wildcat formation, and has missed games the past couple weeks while battling through a toe injury.
Graham Wilbert rescued the Owls in the second half of the season opener from the embarrassment of losing to a Division I-AA team. He’s put up solid numbers, but winning is something which still eludes him. Wilbert has already thrown five touchdowns (he had seven all of last season), and his completion percentage is significantly higher (64.8 percent this season, 52.4 percent in 2011), he still lacks the intangibles to lead his team to sustained success. This season, he’s been a tease: he’ll continually leads his team past midfield, even into scoring territory, but can’t finish drives. The perfect example is FAU’s game against North Texas. Both times in the first half when the Owls reached the red zone Wilbert made costly mistakes. The first time, he was intercepted in the end zone, the next, he lost a fumble.
A pleasant surprise has been the running game. With Alfred Morris gone, there seemed to be a massive void but it’s been filled with a running back-by-committee approach, led by Damian Fortner. Fortner leads all Owls runners with 240 yards and two touchdowns. He provided one of the season’s top highlights with his untouched 43-yard touchdown run at Georgia. His fellow backs are contributing nicely as well. Jonathan Wallace has picked up 159 yards on the ground at an 4.3 average. Martese Jackson (29 carries, 136 yards) led the way in the opener against Wagner with 99 yards. Fumbling is a cause of concern, though. FAU has fumbled 11 times so far, losing eight of them (tied for the most in the Sun Belt with Troy).
The receiving corps are underwhelming. No receiver averages more than 44.8 yards per game. And that receiver is a freshman. Second year wideout William Dukes has been a bright spot. His 18 catches for 224 yards leads all receivers. Dukes has shown a penchant for big play ability, already with a pair of catches over 30 yards. Redshirt senior Byron Hankerson (academically ineligible last season) is making up for lost time, pulling in a team-high two touchdowns.
Tight ends have played a prominent role in the offense. Alex Deleon (seven catches, 43 yards) snagged a 6-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of the Alabama game to end their 12-quarter shutout streak. Nexon Dorvilus has eight catches and a touchdown as well.
Most surprising aspect: Third down defense
Last season, FAU opponents converted a little under half (48 percent) of their third down attempts. So far this season, Pete Rekstis’ unit is holding offenses to 34 percent on the crucial down.
The switch back to a 4-3 defense has been a modest improvement. The defense has played a lot in a 4-2-5 set, though. FAU held Alabama to four straight field goal drives and Georgia had 14 points midway through the second quarter. Against the big boys (Alabama, Georgia), FAU’s defense flashed some signs of being at least respectable, but for the most part is being used as a doormat.
Senior linebacker David Hinds leads the team (and is tied for third in the conference) in tackles with 43. Randell Johnson, second on the team in tackles last season, has played in every game this season, but injured his shoulder late in preseason and has only started once. Jeremy McKnight has filled in admirably with 42 tackles, second to Hinds and seventh in the Sun Belt. Cornerback Keith Reaser is anchoring the secondary with one interception and 19 tackles.
The defense is still allowing too many points (30 ppg compared to 34.7 last season) but the offense has put them in bad situations. Three and outs and short drives are going to cut into the energy level of the defense. Tackling is also a big problem. Offensive players are breaking through FAU defenders too easily. The fundamentals are being taught in practice but there needs to be a way to reinforce it better so missed tackles don’t ensue on game day.
The secondary frequently gets burned on deep passes. The average yards per catch for opponents is 17.8. North Texas scored on a 68-yard touchdown pass in FAU’s last game.
The run defense has been spotty. Teams run for 210 yards per game against the Owls. Middle Tennessee had multiple 100 yard rushers in FAU’s week two loss.
Most surprising aspect: Punter Sean Kelly.
The freshman walk-on has dazzled in his debut, averaging 42.2 yards per punt, with a high of 55. Kelly is matching the production of his predecessor Mickey Groody (42.0 average last season). Kelly’s booming punts serve as an equalizer for the inept FAU offense, backing the opponent further into their territory.
Kelly is the lone reason FAU special teams didn’t receive a failing grade, however, because all other aspects have been disastrous. For instance, FAU is averaging -0.6 yards per punt return. To not even average positive yards is inexcusable. The return duties for punts and kickoffs are split between Keith Reasor and Travis Jones, but neither are making the case to remain in their role. Meanwhile, the kick off returns (21.2 yards) are virtually touchbacks.
If this was just a grade based on wins, then head coach Carl Pelini would be graded more harshly. Pelini admits he knew this would be a tough job and that success wouldn’t come overnight. That’s probably why we haven’t seen his raging Nebraska temper in Boca. There’s a rational reason for this: Why flip out when you know your team is undermatched in most games? Pelini is trying to change a losing culture, and so far, the losing has continued but the attitude of the players has improved. Even while they were getting blown out by Georgia and Alabama, the Owls still competed hard until the end. The late touchdown against Alabama? It definitely wouldn’t have happened last season under coach Howard Schnellenberger. Pelini is a fresh voice and appears to have the players respect.
Most memorable play: Alex Deleon’s touchdown catch at Alabama
So what if this play occurred when the game was way out of reach? When you shock the national media by snapping the defending national champs 12-quarter shutout streak, 40-7 doesn’t seem so bad. Graham Wilbert and Alex Deleon should split the ball in half and frame it, because there won’t be a better college football moment for either in their careers.
Most spectacular play: Damian Fortner’s 43-yard touchdown run at Georgia
It wasn’t the flashiest play of the year, but by far, it was the most impressive. Damian Fortner ran up the middle untouched through the defending SEC East champs defense for a 43-yard score. The best part was after the play, when the TV cameras caught the stunned expressions of the Bulldogs’ fans.
MVP: Punter Sean Kelly
A freshman walk-on as FAU’s MVP? Yeah, its been that kind of season for the Owls. Give punter Sean Kelly credit, though. His number is being called quite frequently because of FAU’s anemic offense, but Kelly has been a pleasant surprise. Not only does he have a strong leg (42.2 yards per punt) but he has athleticism as well. Many times Kelly has recovered botched snaps and rescued the Owls from disaster. With the way the season is unfolding, maybe it’s time to put number 16 behind center.
Staff prediction: Number of wins for the final seven games
My preseason five-win prediction was far too gracious. The Owls have found frequent ways to blow games, with the main reasons being slow starts and turnovers. Carl Pelini has a giant rebuilding project on his hands. Yet, with wins against South Alabama and FIU, FAU will still finish the season tripling its win total from a year ago.
With a new coaching regime, new attitude and new offensive and defensive systems, I have the Owls finishing 4-8. Yet, Inconsistency plagues the team, with the offense only showing up in the fourth quarters of games (41 of 65 total points). Despite that, the Owls will pull back to back wins against South Alabama and Troy, followed up by a final victory against FIU.
The Owls should be able to beat South Alabama. But other than that, don’t expect any more wins this season. Why not? FAU cannot defend the run. Example: FAU has allowed multiple 100+ yard performances to freshman running backs (Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Middle Tennessee’s Jordan Parker). It’s all downhill from South Alabama onward.
I initially predicted five wins before the start of the season, but that was with the idea of Melvin German III being the quarterback. Instead, it’s another year of Graham Wilbert. Nevertheless, I see FAU picking up wins against South Alabama and bitter rival FIU in the last scheduled matchup between the two.