FAU's 34-17 win over Tulane brings positive end to tumultuous week

Josh Orsino of FAU taps the ball away from Xavier Rush (82) of Tulane. (Jon Way, Correspondent)

BOCA RATON — Amid the scandal and drama that surrounded the FAU football program this week, there was still a game to play Saturday.

And lost in the aftershock of the Wednesday resignations of head coach Carl Pelini and defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis was a contest that was arguably FAU’s most important in years.

Entering the week 2-6, FAU needed to win its remaining four games to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2008.

Already-bowl-eligible Tulane was the first team on the must-win schedule, and the Green Wave was inarguably the toughest opponent remaining on that slate.

Focusing on football was difficult amid the blindsiding news, but interim coach Brian Wright knew that the team could unify under their goal of reaching the postseason.

“If you have hope, then you have something to play for,” Wright said Thursday at his introductory press conference.

FAU still has hope. The Owls scored 27 unanswered second-half points to beat Tulane 34-17 Saturday and keep the team in the hunt for a bowl game berth.

“I think this proves that a bunch of men can get together and go to work, and be resilient, and battle, and focus on the moment, and prepare to win,” Wright said. “And when you do all those things, you have a chance.”

Two turnovers left FAU trailing Tulane 17-7 at halftime, but an inspired defensive performance sparked the Owls to the win. FAU intercepted Tulane on four consecutive possessions in the third and fourth quarters — three of the interceptions ended up in the hands of D’Joun Smith — and the FAU offense turned those picks into 20 points.

Smith’s three interceptions tied FAU’s single-game record and put him in the national lead with seven.

“DJ is DJ. That’s not anything out of the ordinary,” senior cornerback Christian Milstead joked.

Perhaps even more-impressive than Smith’s performance was the Owls’ defense as a whole. FAU held Tulane to 167 yards Saturday and only 56 yards in the second half. Both were season-best numbers.

Wright said new defensive coordinator Jovan Dewitt deserved credit for the Owls’ defensive dominance. Formerly the defensive coordinator at Northern Iowa, FAU’s linebackers coach simplified the team’s defensive playbook upon his promotion Wednesday.

“I thought he did a tremendous job calling the defense,” Wright said. “That’s unbelievable defensively…They gave us an opportunity to win the football game.”

A Jaquez Johnson 49-yard touchdown run capped the outburst and gave FAU its final 34-17 margin. The quarterback burst up the middle on a designed quarterback run and Johnson went untouched into the end zone. The score was Johnson’s second touchdown of the game and his eighth of the season, a new FAU single-season record for quarterbacks.

In all, Johnson rushed for 114 yards in the game, a team high. He completed 10-of-21 pass attempts for 107 yards and an interception.

Wright, who maintained his role of offensive coordinator in his move to interim head coach, said that little changed for him Saturday.

“I tried to learn all the officials names, so that was different. Those guys were awesome. I don’t know if they felt sorry for me or something,” he joked.

But in his first game as the team’s head coach, the Owls were noticeably more aggressive and energetic on and off the field.

FAU used a little trickery to pull the game even at 17-17. The trick play came in the form of 30-yard double-pass touchdown that started with Johnson throwing a backward pass to wide receiver Daniel McKinney on the far left sideline. The senior wideout ended the play with a wonderfully-feathered pass to William Dukes between two converging defenders in the end zone.

“It’s easy now,” Wright said of calling the play. “I didn’t have to ask.”

While FAU’s goals are still intact, Wright warned that with a bye week coming up, his team will be tested even more.

“It was a tough circumstance. It still is. [But] When you win, it’s a little bit easier,” Wright said. “Obviously, but we’re nowhere near through this whole situation. I still think that we’re going to have to remained focused.”