BOCA RATON — Carl Pelini's first game as Florida Atlantic University's head coach was one to forget, as the Owls had to battle back to beat Football Championship Subdivision opponent Wagner 7-3 Friday night in front 14,150 at FAU Stadium.
Graham Wilbert's 39-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown throw to Byron Hankerson broke through the Wagner defense for the only score of the game, after FAU was held scoreless for 48 minutes by a Seahwawks team that went 4-7 in the Northeast Conference last season.
Wagner entered halftime leading the Owls 3-0, as FAU quarterback Stephen Curtis, in his first collegiate start, couldn't figure out the Wagner defense. Wilbert entered the game in FAU's first series of the second half, and the Owl offense showed spunk for the first time.
"No ever told me that it was going to be easy," Pelini said in his post-game press conference, trying to break the somber tone of his answers. "I didn't think it was going to be easy, and I knew it wasn't going to be perfect the first night"
Pelini and new offensive coordinator Brian Wright heralded the team's new fast-paced offense in preseason camps, but it was anything but fast-paced in the first half. Curtis completed four of 10 pass attempts for a 32 yards, and didn't fare much better on the ground, rushing for 27 yards on seven attempts.
Wilbert's first drive of the game pushed FAU into field goal range with a quick-paced, 11-play, 42-yard drive. That drive went for naught, though, as Sean Kelley, who had a subpar game punting, as well, missed a 39-yard field goal attempted well right.
Hankerson was Wilbert's top target, with five catches overall in the game. His touchdown made amends for his first-half fumble, which set up Wagner's field goal.
"Bottom line is nothing that happened out there shocked me," Pelini said. "We didn't respond very well at some points, but we did show character and we never quit, and that gives us something to build on."
With less than a minute in the fourth quarter, FAU had a chance to ice the game, with the ball on the one yard line — Marteese Jackson fumbled the ball, giving Wagner possession with 20 seconds remaining. The Seahawks were unable to muster anything out of the final chance.
Travis Jones' performance Friday was indicative of the FAU effort. Jones had two calamitous errors on two second-quarter returns.
Jones' first error came on a kick return, where instead of letting the ball bounce out of bounds or into the endzone, which would give FAU the ball at the 40 or 25-yard line, Jones received the kick in the corner of the endzone and sideline, and was unable to keep his balance for more than two steps, falling out-of-bounds at the two-yard line.
The Owls defense covered for Jones after an FAU punt, but when Wagner returned the favor a drive later, Jones ran directly into the ball after calling for a fair catch. Wagner recovered on the six-yard line, but a D'Joun Smith interception in the endzone again covered for Jones.
The Owls will take on Middle Tennessee State next Saturday. The Blue Raiders had their own troubles with a lesser-division opponent in week one — MTSU fell to McNeese State 27-21 Thursday night.
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