BOCA RATON — Even a beautiful new stadium couldn't mask the ugliness of the Florida Atlantic football program.
The Owls sucked all the energy out of a near-sellout crowd that came to celebrate the opening of a $70-million, tropical-themed facility with an embarrassing 20-0 loss Saturday to a Western Kentucky team that had won only three games in the past three seasons.
The game, the Owls' first ever played in Palm Beach County, left coach Howard Schnellenberger questioning the state of his sagging program.
"The buck stops with me obviously," said Schnellenberger, 77, who will retire after the season. "I'm the head coach here and I've got to find a way to solve this problem and get us to a position where we can win against better competition or equal competition.
"We have some real work to do."
The loss drops FAU to 0-6, 0-3 in the Sun Belt Conference. The nine-game losing streak dating back to last season is the longest in the program's 11 seasons.
"We never expected this," safety Markus Bartels said.
The victory was so significant to the Hilltoppers (2-4, 2-1 in the Sun Belt) that coach Willie Taggart was doused with ice water as the final seconds ticked down. WKU was 3-26 entering the game since joining the FBS in 2006.
FAU managed just 121 yards on offense, 38 coming in the final minutes, and only six first downs against a defense that had allowed more than 412 yards per game.
FAU redshirt junior quarterback David Kooi made his first career start in place of the ineffective and injured Graham Wilbert and was just 10-of-21 passing for 79 yards. The running game produced 25 yards on 25 attempts as the offense crossed midfield only twice.
"Our problem is that we don't have a tried-and-true quarterback," Schnellenberger said. "We don't have one ready to play first-team ability and we're having a hard time to develop that."
Those problems could mount if Saturday was any indication. The day started with an enthusiastic crowd that cheered every move by the home team. The game fell short of a sellout (29,103 in a stadium that holds 30,000), but the atmosphere was electric, especially when the Owls entered the field though an inflatable helmet and was greeted by a host of former players.
But by halftime that crowd started to thin out, and by the start of the fourth quarter, with the score just 6-0, about half the stadium had emptied .
"I want to apologize to them," Bartels said of the fans. "They were awesome. They were loud. It was a great environment and I feel so bad we let them down.
"Please tell them that."
But will that be enough to get them to come back? Athletic Director Craig Angelos has acknowledged the pageantry of an inaugural game would be enough to attract a near-sellout for the opener, but that the product on the field would determine future interest.
That does not bode well for the final four games of this season.
"To play so poorly in front of our so-dedicated fans is hard to deal with in any way you look at it," said Schnellenberger, whose team hosts Middle Tennessee next Saturday.
And the final score does not indicate how poorly FAU played.
After the Owls failed on a fourth-and-1 on the Hilltoppers' 40 in its opening drive, FAU never crossed midfield again until less than two minutes remained. FAU punted nine times and had one series that consumed more than 2 minutes, 41 seconds.
Western Kentucky, led by running back Bobby Rainey (131 yards, two touchdowns) overcame three missed field goals and a missed extra point.
"The atmosphere was crazy with all the support from the fans," said FAU running back Alfred Morris, who had just 27 yards on 14 carries. "I wish we would have come out here and won, gave them what they came here for."
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