Entering Saturday’s annual Shula Bowl game, only 31 of Florida Atlantic’s 108 points scored through four games had come in the first half. The Owls’ offense was presumably due for an explosion. They couldn’t have picked a better time than against arch-rival FIU (1-4, 0-1). Willie Taggart’s club put up 34 points by halftime, en route to a 58-21 victory over the Panthers.
“What a win and what a way to bounce back for our football team following last week,” said Taggart.
The difference for FAU (3-2, 0-0) was the play of quarterback N’Kosi Perry. The Miami transfer went 18-of-21 for 329 yards and three touchdowns and was named Shula Bowl XX MVP in a much-needed rebound performance following his 11-of-33 outing against Air Force seven days ago.
“I’m glad that (N’Kosi) played well tonight because the way he worked this week was the way a quarterback is supposed to work,” said Taggart. “We got back from Air Force about 8 AM and at noon he was in the office trying to get better by learning what he did wrong, so this isn’t a surprise what he did today.”
Despite FIU’s 1-3 record entering the game, the Panthers held tough for a majority of a first-half that saw both teams trade scores for the majority of the opening 30 minutes. Florida Atlantic scored its second first quarter of the season in short order when Perry led the Owls on a four-play, 75-yard drive to open the game, culminating in Perry calling his own number from eight yards out. FIU’s second drive of the game started from their own seven-yard line and they quickly ended up in a third-and-long from inside the five-yard line when running back D’Vonte Price took a checkdown 20 yards, breaking multiple tackles in the process to move the chains.
The reception was the biggest play from Price as the FAU defense held him to 34 yards on 16 carries.
Two plays later, quarterback Max Bortenschlager found wideout Bryce Singleton down the left sideline for a 57-yard catch — just falling short of the goal line.
Price finished off the drive one yard out to tie the game. On the ensuing FAU drive, Taggart rolled the dice in attempting to convert of fourth down from inside the Owls 35-yard line, but FIU stopped FAU running back James Charles short. After gaining five yards on the first two plays, reserve Panther running back Lexington Joseph was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct call — taking the FIU drive from third-and-five to third-and-20 — and moving the team out of field goal range. Davis spoke about his team’s continued struggles with untimely penalties postgame.
“That has been one of the things that we’ve had issues with for the entire season,” said Davis. “Going back to the second game of the year against Texas State where we got one called back because of a post-play penalty.”
Both teams would trade punts, followed by a Florida Atlantic five-play, 80-yard drive that was capped by a James Charles 32-yard touchdown run. The chunk play was one of 11 plays for the FAU offense of over 20 yards. Davis spoke about the need for the defense to get a hold of the big plays.
“The explosive plays, when you give those things up and the quarterback has time to scramble around and extend plays, we have to fix that — that’s me and that’s our assistant coaches,” said Davis.
The 32-yard run was a portion of the 296 yards rushing allowed by FIU, the 18th time since the start of the 2018 season that the Panthers have allowed over 160 yards on the ground and the ninth that they’ve allowed over 200.
“We’ve had our defense on the field for entirely too long, the other week they were out there for 91 plays, that isn’t helping our ability to stop the run for four quarters,” said Davis.
FIU would lead for the final time early in the second quarter when South Florida transfer Randall St. Felix hauled in an 11-yard touchdown from Bortenschlager. FAU’s offensive explosion started midway through the second quarter when Perry used his legs to scramble and find Zaire Mitchell-Paden in the right corner of the endzone to give the Owls a 20-14 lead. Following a three-and-out, FAU running back Johnny Ford caught a pass over the middle of the field and raced 89 yards to extend the FAU lead to two scores.
FIU’s final score of the game came on a catch and run by wideout Tyrese Chambers, who went 68 yards to make the contest 27-21. Chambers led FIU with 79 yards on two receptions.
“That was an adjustment on our part, it was an RPO and he made a great catch, I didn’t even see the catch because I got hit, but I saw him running so I knew it was good,” said Bortenschlager postgame. The Maryland transfer finished the evening 12-of-27 for 263 yards with two touchdowns and one interception before true freshman Grayson James took the final 10 minutes of the game. He also was named the Shula Bowl MVP representative for the FIU side. The FAU game is Bortenschlager’s third of the season with under 50% completions. Panther receivers were also credited with several drops. He spoke about the Owls’ pass rush and the completion percentage postgame.
“It’s definitely hard to get into a real rhythm when it’s one pass caught and then one incompletion, it’s like basketball, you want to see the ball go in the net and I’ve got to do a better job,” said Bortenschlager.
Three minutes after the Chambers TD, the last relevant touchdown of the game occurred when Perry hit redshirt sophomore Je’Quan Burton for a 42-yard touchdown as FAU entered halftime with a 34-21 lead. The second half served as nothing more than salt in the wounds of the Panthers and a fifth straight decisive coronation for the Owls. Florida Atlantic scored 24 unanswered points, steamrolling FIU in the process.
Davis spoke about what it will take to stop the slide — one that sees FIU winless against FBS teams since the 2019 win over Miami and winless on the road since a November 2018 win against Charlotte.
“It starts with me, the coaches and the leaders on the football team because the past doesn’t matter, what matters is Charlotte and trying to get this thing right,” said Davis.
For Florida Atlantic, they retain ownership of the Don Shula Trophy in what’s becoming an annual occurrence for the Owls.
“I’m sure the talking was going on all week and it’s fun when you get to compete against your friends — but it’s better when you get to win,” said Taggart.