Mid-major Report: Florida Atlantic takes down Tulane in wake of Carl Pelini turmoil
Though Florida Atlantic was tabbed as the Vegas favorite in the matchup, the Owls' 34-17 win over Tulane last weekend felt nothing short of stunning. The Green Wave were already bowl eligible, having won four straight entering Saturday. Everything had seemingly gone right for Tulane this year, while everything was quickly falling apart for FAU.
Former Owls coach Carl Pelini and defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis resigned last week amid reports that they had used marijuana. Signed affidavits later revealed cocaine use. FAU had lost four of its last five to drop to 2-5, and it was scrambling to stay afloat. Situations like this typically go one of two ways: A team can drift apart and collapse completely, or it can pull together out of an instinct to fight back.
Interim coach Brian Wright was in a tough spot. He had to prepare for Saturday's game while also providing guidance to a group of confused and surprised college kids. In his opening press conference, Wright stressed the word resiliency.
From the Sun Sentinel's Dieter Kurtenbach:
"There's a lot of young people hurt. A lot of young people upset. There's a lot of blank stares and a lot of tears. A lot of guys looking to the ground," Wright said. "I think a lot of players and a lot of us don't quite [know] what to think yet, it happened so fast.
"Our focus is on the coaching staff and their families, the players, and on preparing to win Saturday," Wright continued. "The most important thing is that we're here for them as young people. We need to care about them. We need to make sure we help them get through this situation."
Wright's message clearly resonated. The Owls forced interceptions on four consecutive possessions and outscored Tulane 27-0 in the second half. Junior D'Joun Smith made three of those picks, bringing his season total to seven. FAU has already matched its win total from 2012, and a triumph like this could provide a lot of momentum moving forward.
Florida Atlantic still has hope of attaining bowl eligibility. The Owls close the season against Southern Miss (0-8), New Mexico State (1-8) and FIU (1-7), all opponents they could conceivably beat. Three more victories would lift FAU, however improbably, to a record of 6-6.
Adversity molds, for better or worse. Wright has at least three more games to watch his team take shape.
• Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning: After he suffered a leg injury on Sept. 28 against Tulane, it appeared as if Browning's season would be over. But the prognosis took a turn for the better, and Browning returned on Oct. 26 against Georgia State. He tossed four touchdown passes in a 38-10 win. The senior quarterback followed that up with a masterful performance to topple Troy. He racked up six total touchdowns in a 49-37 win, and he has the Warhawks right back in contention for a Sun Belt championship.
• Akron: The Zips took home the Wagon Wheel for the first time since 2009 following a 16-7 win over Kent State on Saturday. Running back Jawon Chisholm rushed for 151 yards, and the Zips' defense forced five turnovers. With three victories, Akron has now matched its combined win total from the past three seasons. This program has a long way to go before it's considered a MAC contender, but progress is progress.
• San Diego State running back Adam Muema: A week after rushing for 111 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-28 overtime loss to Fresno State, the Aztecs' junior rushed for 233 yards and three scores in a 35-30 win over New Mexico. Muema has come alive in the past four games, tallying 564 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. After opening the season 0-3, San Diego State has become a different team. Its successful ground game has helped it win three of its last four.
• FIU: Saturday marked the sixth time the Panthers scored 14 or fewer points, as they fell to East Carolina 34-13. If FIU can't win against UTEP (1-7, 0-4 C-USA) on Nov. 16, it might be stuck on one win, just two years removed from an eight-win campaign. Wherefore art thou, Mario?
• Rice: The Owls seemed well on their way to winning the C-USA West division, having won five straight entering last week's matchup with North Texas. But the Mean Green forced three turnovers en route to a 28-16 win, moving to 4-1 in league play with a tiebreaker over Rice. North Texas now controls its own destiny in the division, and the Owls are left hoping they'll get some help to have a shot at playing for the Conference USA championship.
• UAB: With 1:50 remaining in Saturday's game against Middle Tennessee, the Blazers scored a touchdown to cap a 70-yard drive and tie the game at 21. But the Blue Raiders came up victorious following their subsequent two-minute drill, which dropped UAB to 2-6 and all but ensured the Blazers will be kept out of a bowl game (they have Marshall, East Carolina and Rice back-to-back-to-back) for the ninth straight season. Coach Garrick McGee is looking for any signs of progress, and he has to hope close losses like this one will eventually lead to wins. MANDEL: Lessons in toughness: The rise of Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy