If I had to pick any matchup whose result mattered most to Florida Atlantic, I'd have plenty to choose from. Two bowl games, key wins against FIU in the Shula Bowl or even the Owls' Sun Belt championship title win could all take the spot. But if I'm selecting a moment that could have been a program defining event, but did not come to fruition, it would be the Owls' game with the University of Florida Gators.
Going into this matchup, it was safe to say the Florida Atlantic Owls were not favored to pull a road upset. FAU had yet to win a game versus the Gators. In their last meeting in Gainesville, Florida cruised to a 41-3 win over the Owls.
FAU's history with Power Five teams is short and mostly fruitless due to their continued climb as a young program, with their one win coming 42-39 at home against the Minnesota Golden Gophers in 2007.
Along with their history against the Power Five, the Owls were already in the midst of a 2-8 season. Facing a combination of injuries and problems with ball security, FAU couldn't seem to catch a break in any of their games that year.
Coming into that week, the Gators were 8th in the Associated Press poll, even after losing redshirt freshman Will Grier to a PED suspension before the seventh game of the season. Backup Treon Harris, who had split snaps with Grier throughout the year, now was in the driver's seat for the Gators offense while trying to lead them to the SEC championship game.
Despite being without one of his two quarterbacks who had helped the team to a 9-1 record, McElwain brushed off his opponent after their 24-14 win over South Carolina, saying "We've got a team coming in that's full of a bunch of Florida guys that wishes they were Gators."
The first-year head coach would later see that confident statement nearly come back to bite him.
With an always vocal group of supporters behind them, the Gators took the field in a situation where they were highly favored to cruise through what they considered to be a lesser opponent.
What happened on the scoreline in the next half silenced the fans: nothing. The way the game went early was more or less stagnant football, but was one of the best case scenarios for the Owls.
After six three-and-outs, both teams took a shot at taking the lead on field goals, but to no avail. Greg Joseph and Austin Hardin both missed their attempts in the best scoring chances either team had in the half. The game was still wide open, to the disbelief of everyone watching.
Coming out of the half, the Gators fired back with two unanswered scores on a short run by running back Kelvin Taylor and a touchdown pass from Harris. Suddenly the Gators had life, and things looked like they would return to the status quo.
But they didn't. FAU showed a resilience that was seldom seen during the year. Quarterback Jaquez Johnson led the team on a nine play, 72-yard drive towards the end of the third quarter that finished with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Kalib Woods. The Owls now had life and the momentum of the game, they just needed a break to go their way.
That break came in the form of a Trey Hendrickson strip sack on Harris and an Ocie Rose recovery in the endzone. The game was tied again.
In an action befitting the current mood of the crowd, the sky opened up as both teams tried to fight their way to a win. With both teams failing to separate it, the game went to overtime.
Taking the ball first, Florida quickly moved itself into the position to score. They would stay alive with another touchdown pass from Harris to put the Gators up, but not before Hendrickson blocked the extra point.
Needing only seven points, Johnson and the Owls offense drove all the way to within 10 yards of goal. After a quarterback option for a loss, the Owls tried to pass three times.
That first pass was hands down the most controversial call of the game. Wide receiver Jenson Stoshak was held on his shoulder pad by safety Quincy Wilson, leading Stoshak to fall in the endzone.
With no flag on the field, FAU would not get a much needed pass interference call. Instead, they would try two more passes, of which both would be stopped.
As the Gators celebrated their overtime win, most of the Owls sat completely dumbstruck by all that had happened. Head coach Charlie Partridge looked almost on the verge of tears because of his frustration, while Stoshak laid in the endzone near the spot he was targeted on the last play of the game.
In another world, the Owls win that game. That pass interference call is made. FAU stuns the home crowd with their biggest win ever.
We don't live in that world. The Owls lost a game in which they played as the better team. They out-gained the Gators 299-252 in total offense, completed more third down conversions (5-of-9 to 2-of-13) and had more first downs 18-13
They were as close as nine yards to nearly winning in overtime. With their defense that was making stops left and right, they should have stopped the Gators.
Even with the defeat, the result ushers in a new standard for the Owls to beat. After long being laughed at as a pushover, they now have a starting point to change that.