• The Owls were one of the few Florida teams to play in Week 2 as Hurricane Irma approached, and they acquitted themselves well. It’s getting a little easier to imagine Lane Kiffin coming out of Year One in Boca Raton with a winning record.
By Joan Niesen
September 09, 2017

As many Florida college football teams—even those that were set to play on the road—canceled their Week 2 games with Hurricane Irma bearing down on the Sunshine State, Florida Atlantic team kept its date in Madison. It would be the Owls’ first game against a Power 5 team under head coach Lane Kiffin, and Wisconsin announced that it was prepared to host Florida Atlantic players and staff for several days after the game as needed. In retrospect, even after FAU’s 31–14 loss dropped it to 0–2, the decision (at least in terms of its football ramifications) looks like a wise one. Against one of the best defenses in the nation, Kiffin’s team was able to score early, and it kept the game within reasonable reach for three quarters. Rebuilding FAU will be an undertaking greater than overhauling its roster—which Kiffin has already achieved—and the showing against Wisconsin was a solid start.

It’s impossible to imagine the pressure FAU players and coaches must have felt going into Saturday’s game. They were preparing for an extended stay in Madison, as Irma is sure to disrupt travel back into Florida for several days, while also wondering what exactly their friends, families and classmates were experiencing back in Boca Raton as the largest hurricane the state has seen in years approached. Add in the country’s No. 9 team, with a lockdown defense and an offense that scored 59 points (albeit against Utah State) a week ago, and that’s a foolproof recipe for some severe mental anguish. Kiffin addressed the storm’s effect on his players after the game:

By and large, though, the Owls and Kiffin remained composed against Wisconsin, which rode freshman running back Jonathan Taylor for 223 yards and three touchdowns. FAU’s defensive line disrupted things in the Badgers’ backfield on several occasions, but it wasn’t able to prevent the big running plays that keyed the Badgers’ win; Taylor’s first two touchdowns came on runs of 64 and 29 yards. On the whole, though, FAU managed to get stops when it counted, and though Wisconsin finished with 564 yards of total offense—86 more than last week’s 478 against Utah State—it scored 28 fewer points than it had against the Aggies.

Going into the game, it was clear the Owls would need to rip off a few big plays if they could hope for a win. Defensive end Leighton McCarthy snared a 15-yard interception in the second quarter that set up FAU’s second touchdown of the day, and the Owls’ first score came on a 63-yard pass. Kiffin’s offense thus far doesn’t have the personnel or the consistency to beat a team like Wisconsin, though it proved Saturday it has more than enough weapons to hang in.

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At times in the game, it was Wisconsin that looked like the hastily cobbled-together roster, not FAU. The Badgers had several blown coverages in the first half, but by the third quarter, the defense settled down. Although FAU was far from perfect—issues with poor snaps reared their head for the second consecutive game—it limited its glaring errors to some poor tackling against Wisconsin’s run game. Eight penalties for 73 yards didn’t help the Owls’ cause, either.

Losing to Wisconsin by no means should count as a knock on Kiffin, even though his presence puts a microscope on a program used to being overlooked in Conference USA. After a bizarre, weather-delayed 42–19 loss to Navy in Week 1, this outcome against the Badgers actually heightens my expectations for FAU’s season. With its two toughest tests complete, the Owls may have some impressive wins ahead in Conference USA, and it’s getting a little easier to imagine Kiffin coming out of Year One in Boca Raton with a winning record.

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