In the biggest Shula Bowl ever, the Lane Train continued to roll as FAU (8-3, 7-0) steamrolled FIU (6-4, 4-3) 52-24 on senior night to clinch their first ever appearance in the Conference USA Championship Game. The transformation of the program under Lane Kiffin has been incredible. After watching the home opener against Navy, there is no way I would have predicted that the Owls would clinch their first ever Conference USA East division title on senior night.
It's only fitting that Kalib Woods, a senior who no one thought would contribute to the team after being suspended earlier in the season, would emerge as FAU's biggest playmaker in the deciding game to put FAU a win away from winning their first conference title since 2007. Woods had the best game of his career, with seven catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns.
Leading 37-24 early in the fourth quarter, staring down a 3rd and long, Kalib Woods made the biggest play of the game. Woods leaped over an FIU defender for a 32-yard gain to put FAU in scoring position. The play gave all of the momentum back to FAU, right when it seemed like FIU was capable of making a run. Several plays later Devin Singletary would score from three-yards out to slam the door on any comeback attempt FIU had.
Singletary reverted back to form after a quiet game against Louisiana Tech, as he finished with 164 yards and two touchdowns, including a beautiful 70-yard touchdown run in which he swerved through FIU defenders before jetting to the end zone.
Jason Driskel was excellent again, passing for 239 yards and four touchdowns. Aside from one play in which he threw an interception straight to an FIU defender on a comeback route, and a few procedural penalties from the offensive line, the offense was untouchable, as FAU gained 572 yards on offense. If FAU didn't turn in a sloppy second quarter, the Shula Bowl could have been over at the half.
Without Thomas Owens, who was a late scratch due to an undisclosed knee injury, FIU's offense was stagnant for the most part. But the Panthers were able to answer FAU's 14-0 run in the first quarter with 10 unanswered points in the second quarter to make this a game. Alex McGough connected with Darrius Scott on their first touchdown drive, and after Andrew Brown picked off Driskel, FIU settled for a Jose Borregales field goal to make it 14-10.
FAU was able to respond quickly with a 10-play 75-yard touchdown drive before the half as Driskel connected with D'Anfernee McGriff from six-yards out to keep the Panthers at bay.
Without Owens, it never felt like FIU had a chance. Alex McGough had a solid game from a stats perspective with 218 passing yards and two touchdowns, but you could tell he really missed Owens. With no need to fear FIU's passing offense, the Owls did a great job loading the box to shut down FIU's running backs as the Panthers rushed for 85 yards on 31 rushing attempts.
The Panthers certainly made it much closer than I thought they would, but in the end it just wasn't their year. 2017 Belongs to FAU, as the Don Shula Award will reside in Boca Raton for at least the next 365 days.
To the seniors who had to endure three straight 3-9 seasons, and close loss after close loss, thank you. FAU is finally starting to realize their potential and the program would not be here without the likes of Greg Howell, Nick Internicola, Greg Joseph, Raekwon Williams and Antonyo Woods, as their senior leadership has paved the way for the next wave of Owls to continue a winning tradition.
Although FAU has clinched a spot in the C-USA Championship Game, the Owls still have one more conference game left as they will head to Charlotte for the regular season finale. FIU will head home to play WKU.