GAME NOTES: The Florida Atlantic Owls look to snap their 10-game losing streak versus league rivals as they go head-to-head with the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders at Floyd Stadium in a Sun Belt Conference showdown.
Florida Atlantic overcame four lost fumbles in its opener to edge Wagner, 7-3, in the head coaching debut of Carl Pelini. FAU finished last season with a 1-11 overall record, including an 0-8 mark against SBC rivals. As the 2011 campaign reached its end, head coach Howard Schnellenberger announced his retirement after 11 seasons at the helm of the program. After spending the past four seasons as Nebraska's defensive coordinator, Pelini stepped into FAU's head coaching vacancy with the intent to lead the Owls to their first bowl game since 2008.
Middle Tennessee had its losing streak extended to seven games as it fell, 27-21, to McNeese State in its home opener. Middle Tennessee got off to a slow start offensively and could not slow down the Cowboys, an FCS team that finished 6-5 in 2011. The Blue Raiders had plenty of room for improvement after they ended last season with a 2-10 overall record. Middle Tennessee's only win over a league opponent came over FAU, as it ended with a disappointing 1-7 mark in conference action. The Blue Raiders had reached bowl games in back-to-back seasons prior to 2011 and never finished lower than fourth in the SBC under head coach Rick Stockstill.
The Blue Raiders and Owls have met nine times since the series began in 2003. Middle Tennessee has won its last four games versus FAU to claim a 6-3 lead. The Blue Raiders improved to 5-1 versus FAU under Stockstill as they picked up a dominant, 38-14, win in last season's meeting.
Although sophomore quarterback Stephen Curtis made his first career start in the home opener against Wagner, he was pulled after completing just 4-of-10 passes for 37 yards in the first half. Senior Graham Wilbert took over after the intermission and sparked the offense by connecting on 10-of-13 attempts for 126 yards and the game-winning touchdown.
The Owls had the least productive offense in the NCAA (248.8) and ranked second to last in the country with 12.9 points per game in 2011. FAU's lack of production in its opener against a mid-level FCS opponent indicates that putting points on the scoreboard will be an issue once again.
With Alfred Morris now playing for the Washington Redskins, Martese Jackson emerged as the Owls' new workhorse over the offseason. Jackson picked up 99 yards on 21 carries in the opener, but put the ball on the turf twice. Despite the turnovers by Jackson, the Owls managed to pick up a win in their home opener for the first time since 2008.
Pelini built Nebraska into one of the top defensive teams in the country while serving as the team's defensive coordinator from 2008-2011. The Owls' new head coach clearly had his team prepared, holding Wagner to 215 total yards of offense.
Senior linebacker David Hinds recorded a team-high 10 tackles and FAU finished with eight tackles for loss overall. Sophomore cornerback D'Joun Smith could not have found a better time for his first career interception. Smith prevented the Seahawks from expanding their 3-0 lead by picking off Wagner's Nick Doscher in the end zone with just over a minute left in the first half.
Middle Tennessee's offense could not get into a rhythm until it was too late against McNeese State. The Blue Raiders went into the fourth frame trailing 24-6 after they gained only 50 yards on three drives into the third quarter. Middle Tennessee showed signs of life by outscoring the Cowboys, 15-3, in the final 15 minutes.
The Blue Raiders were led by junior Logan Kilgore, who completed 27 of his 41 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Middle Tennessee had its second-best single-season total with 254.3 passing yards per game last season with Kilgore under center, but the team's new contributors are clearly going to need time to develop and grasp the offense before they contribute to a successful attack.
Freshman running back Jordan Parker was the lone bright spot on the offense in his debut with the team. Parker refused to quit as he gained a team-best and hard earned 39 yards on nine carries.
Middle Tennessee's defense allowed 450 total yards and failed to register a takeaway against McNeese State. The Blue Raiders' hired Tyrone Nix in the offseason to take over as defensive coordinator and shake things up. Despite the new coordinator and direction, the Cowboys gained 298 yards on the ground.
Jajuan Harley, Kevin Byard, and Christian Henry all tied for the team-lead with 11 tackles each.
After both sides struggled against FCS competitors in week one, both teams have a lot to prove heading into conference play. Something has got to give as FAU's unproductive offense faces the Blue Raiders' non-existent defense. Middle Tennessee will extend its winning streak against FAU if Kilgore and the Blue Raiders come out with the sense of urgency they displayed in the fourth quarter of their week one loss.