WKU pitches 20-0 shutout to spoil FAU Stadium debut

Senior running back Bobby Rainey celebrates with teammates during last week’s 36-33 win over Middle Tennessee State. Rainey finished with 131 yards on 34 carries with two touchdowns on Saturday to lead WKU to its second straight win, a 20-0 shutout at FAU.

Brad Stephens

A field-size American flag, live owl and flyover officially christened FAU Stadium Saturday.

But once those pregame festivities ended, it was the Topper defense putting its own mark on the brand-new 30,000 seat facility.

WKU held Florida Atlantic to just 121 total yards and six first downs, beating the Owls 20-0.

It was the first shutout for WKU (2-4, 2-1 Sun Belt Conference) since an 87-0 win over West Virginia Tech on Sept. 8, 2007.

FAU (0-6, 0-3) didn’t eclipse the 100-yard mark until well into the fourth quarter.

“It was a total team effort,” junior free safety Kareem Peterson told WKU’s Big Red Radio Network following the game. “We held them to under 100 before the fourth quarter. It was crazy — nothing like I’ve ever experienced.”

Saturday marked both the first-ever game in the history of FAU Stadium and the first career start for Owls’ quarterback David Kooi.

The Toppers made Kooi uncomfortable throughout, holding the junior to just 79 yards on 10 of 21 passing and sacking him three times.

Senior linebacker Ben Duvall, senior defensive end Jared Clendenin and sophomore linebacker Andrew Jackson all tallied sacks on the Owls signal caller.

WKU stifled Kooi to the point that FAU Head Coach Howard Schnellenberger pulled him for backup Stephen Curtis during the third quarter, only to re-insert him later.

The Topper defense was also strong defending the run Saturday, as Owls running back Alfred Morris accumulated just 27 yards on 14 carries.

Morris ran for 84 yards and a touchdown in a 17-16 win over WKU one year ago.

“We put a lot of focus on the run because (Morris) has been running through a lot of teams,” said Peterson, who notched a team-high eight tackles Saturday. “We knew he could break tackles so we got to the ball and wrapped up.”

While the Topper defense handled the Owl offense throughout, it took the WKU offense awhile to get off the ground itself.

The Toppers had an early chance at points, getting first and goals from the FAU seven and eight-yard lines on the same drive.

But sophomore kicker Monte Merrick missed a 34-yard field goal, and WKU came away empty handed.

WKU finally struck first at the 8:56 mark of the second quarter when senior running back Bobby Rainey followed sophomore fullback Nick Baisch and senior left tackle Wes Jeffries in for a four yard touchdown.

“We just had to slow it down and play our game,” said Rainey, who finished with 131 yards on 34 carries with two touchdowns. “We didn’t do that in the first quarter but then we settled down.”

The score remained 6-0 as Merrick missed the ensuing extra point.

Merrick, who was making his first start of the season, left the game after the extra point attempt with a hip flexor and didn’t return.

He was replaced by senior Casey Tinius, who missed a 45-yard field goal late in the quarter that would’ve given the Toppers a two-score lead.

After the teams traded three punts to begin the second half, WKU drove 67 yards in 10 plays, down to the FAU 15.

But the Toppers went off the field without adding to the lead, as Tinius missed a 32-yard field goal, the fourth missed kick (including the Merrick missed PAT) on the day for WKU.

“The defense was giving us great field position, so we needed to capitalize,” Head Coach Willie Taggart said. “I just thought our football team was playing to the level of its opponent.

“If we’re playing someone really tough, we play with a lot more emotion and a lot more of a sense of urgency, and we just weren’t doing that early in this game.”

But WKU was finally able to put the game out of reach in the game’s final quarter.

First, junior quarterback Kawaun Jakes capped off a 10-play, 76-yard drive by scrambling for a seven yard touchdown.

A converted extra point by freshman Jesse Roy, the Toppers’ third kicker of the day, made the lead 13-0.

Later in the quarter, sophomore linebacker Xavius Boyd dove to block the punt of Mickey Groody, who was kicking on the run.

Boyd’s block set WKU up at the FAU 19-yard line.

“At first I thought he was going to run it, so I was going to get a big hit on the punter,” said Boyd, who had seven tackles. “And then I seen him try to kick it so I just put my hand out and I knew it was blocked.”

Five plays later, Rainey followed Baisch into the end zone for his second touchdown of the day, and Roy’s extra point gave the Toppers a 20-0 edge.

Combined with WKU’s Oct. 6 win over Middle Tennessee State, the Toppers now have a two-game win streak for the first time since consecutive wins over North Carolina Central and Chattanooga in 2007.

They have also won four out of their last road games.

They’ll try to win their third straight game when they take on Louisiana-Lafayette on Oct. 22 at Smith Stadium in WKU’s annual Homecoming game.

The Toppers will also be trying to break a home losing streak that dates back to Sept. 20, 2008.

Taggart said more stellar performances from the WKU defense will be the key to getting that elusive home win, and many more after.

“If we play defensively the way we played tonight,” Taggart said, “we’re going to have a shot in any game we play.”