Florida Atlantic ended their 2014 season with a record of 3-9, missing out on bowl eligibility, a C-USA title and a Shula Bowl victory in Charlie Partridge's first season as head coach. While the year may be represented by these facts, there was still a lot that occurred throughout the tumultuous season.
Pulverized by The Power 5
With a decent amount of starters returning and a four game winning streak dating back to last season, this Owl team was sufficiently amped for the start of the new year. It began with what was once going to be known as the "Pelini Bowl", but eventually became the "Ameer Abdullah Show". The Nebraska Huskers ran and ran and ran all over the Owls and while the overall performance was what you would expect from an overmatched opponent, FAU's lone touchdown drive left me clamoring to see the offense against a weaker team.
That weaker competition would not come in the next week as the Owls were demolished by Alabama and oh, what do you know? FAU heads back home at 0-2 and senior starting quarterback Jaquez Johnson has already had to miss time due to injury.
The Real Schedule
With the Owls returning to full health and the competition softening, this would turn out to be FAU's closest semblance of a competitive run. Florida Atlantic overmatched Tulsa in every facet of their game in Boca Raton en route to a 50-21 victory. With a 1-2 record on the year, the Owls traveled to Wyoming to take on the Cowboys in their altitude-peaking stadium. With the game inching closer and closer to an FAU win, Jaquez Johnson fumbled the ball away with under a minute to go and the Cowboys took their shot down the field on the next play. The following play would lead to a score and a stunned team of Owls heading back home with a 20-19 defeat.
The Wyoming game proved to be the real back-breaker in the early part of the season and it appears that the Owls never fully recovered. Yes, they would pick up wins in their next two home games against UTSA and WKU -- albeit in intensely dramatic fashion -- but the fact that they were unable to put any teams away after the victory against Tulsa proved that FAU just doesn't know how to win games yet.
Sandwiched between the stunning victories against UTSA and WKU was another lackadaisical performance. This time against South Florida rivals, FIU. You never want to lose to your rival, but with a two-hour rain delay -- FIU's fourth delay of the season up to that point -- the Owls could never get anything going on offense and the young Panthers reacquired the Shula Bowl trophy.
Wow, This Is Bad
Following the incredible showing against Western Kentucky, the Owls began the tailspin into their eventual 3-9 record. Five games to concede the year and five losses to crumble any sort of momentum gained in the three victories. I appreciated the efforts against Marshall and MTSU, but losing to North Texas, UAB and ODU is something that needs to be corrected in the future.
One clear factor that reared it's despicable head back out was the lack of defensive depth this team had. The offensive two-deep is not an extensive list of world-beaters, but at least there are FBS-sized athletes on that side of the ball. The Pelini regime left a cupboard bare of big bodies capable of making open-field tackles and it showed. Opposing running backs -- like UAB's Jordan Howard and Marshall's Devon Johnson to just name two -- had a field day against the Owls.
Florida Atlantic severely underperformed in these final five contests. While the coaching staff showed glimpses of second half adjustments it became clear by seasons end that the initial gameplans being implemented were not up to snuff. FAU finished the season with an offensive F/+ ranking of 98, while dropping down to 105 on the defensive side of the ball.
Lucky Whitehead - Mr. Do It All. Do you need solid starting field position for your offense? Lucky got you. Do you need 12 yards on a completion underneath the defense? Lucky is your man. Do you want to see the most electrifying jet sweep in South Florida? Bruh. Lucky Whitehead entered 2014 with restrained expectations and shattered them by seasons end with over 700 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns. He also contributed over 200 yards rushing and averaged nearly 25 yards per return on special teams. The senior from Virginia will be sorely missed.
Damian Parms/Andrae Kirk - One of these two was expected to lead the Owls back to great things, while the other was expected to just not get burnt on every deep ball. What happened instead was Andrae Kirk championing an unstable front seven with 103 tackles and two interceptions and Damian Parms shoring up the secondary with 84 tackles of his own. D'Joun Smith was unable to match his stellar junior season, but Parms and Kirk provided the little stability the Owl defense was able to provide. Andrae Kirk leaves FAU as one of the greatest linebackers in its short history.
Freshmen - Under Howard Schnellenberger, true freshmen had extremely limited opportunities to play. That has changed drastically under Partridge and in playing some young guns, the Owls have already established some starters for next season. Greg Howell is not only ‘bout that life, but ‘bout that action of picking up over five yards a carry. Henry Bussey is the next Lucky Whitehead. Kalib Woods is the next William Dukes. Joseph Gold and Reginald Bain are legitimate offensive line starters. Jerrad Ward is a walk-on that earned and deserved the right to play next to Andrae Kirk. Raekwon Williams still has a great name and will be an adequate replacement for D'Joun Smith. The future is bright in Boca and I'm glad Coach Partridge gave us the early opportunity to see that.
Was 2014 a bad season for FAU football? In short, yes. Yes, it was. But again, that's just the short of it all. Partridge's first season was never meant to represent the program as a whole. No coaches first year is ever meant to display that. Sometimes you luck out and win more than you lose in this situation, but Pelini left the depth so dry that I can't sit back and blame Coach Partridge for that much.
2015 is a completely different animal, though. First, the schedule changes in an interesting way. The loss of UAB still leaves a few stones to be turned, but if we can assume some C-USA scheduling quirks, it's looking like Marshall, MTSU and FIU all come to Boca Raton next season for conference matchups. The out-of-conference lineup has already been squared away and Buffalo (with a new head coach) and Miami (who should've had a new head coach) also head to FAU Stadium next season. On top of those contests, the Owls travel to Tulsa (also with a new head coach) and Florida (new head coach -- are you sensing a trend here?) to round out what appears to be an exciting dockett of winnable, fun games.
The two-deep still has holes, though. How do Partridge and the staff fill some of these gaps? Well, with a stellar recruiting class, that's how. The Owls are currently staring a top 50 class in the face. The next two months prior to National Signing Day will surely be filled with flips, soft verbal commits and plenty of pictures of the Deerfield Beach pier by visiting recruits. If the Owls can secure Rashard Causey, Rodrick Archer, Tarrick Thomas and a few other notable signatures in February, Boca Raton will house the conference's top recruiting class and at least 25 more pieces to the overall Partridge puzzle for building a program.
Every announcement from now until the beginning of next season -- be it Coach Harriott to Florida or the inevitable decommitment of a top recruit -- is a noteworthy event. As a fan, I look forward to Partridge's first full twelve months as head coach. He has a vision for the program and the administration on his side. While 2014 may not have been the season many hoped for, #OwlNation is finally on the rise again.