WKU’s offense comes up empty in 17-16 home loss to FAU

Western wide receiver Willie McNeal jumps for a pass as Florida Atlantic defensive back Tavious Polo attempts to deflect it on Saturday at L.T. Smith Stadium. Florida Atlantic won 17-16.

Zach Greenwell

It was “just WKU’s luck.”

That was one of Head Coach Willie Taggart’s descriptions for a WKU loss that bucked season trends.

The Toppers’ young defense, which had struggled for most of the year, held Florida Atlantic to 215 yards Saturday night.

But the offense punted 10 times in the game and mustered just 70 yards passing, hindering WKU (1-8, 1-4 Sun Belt Conference) in a 17-16 loss to the Owls in front of 10,275 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

“Everything we wanted was there,” Taggart said. “I felt like we did everything but win that ballgame. Even though we didn’t throw the ball well, we still did enough to win the ballgame.”

WKU never had much going offensively in the game beyond junior running back Bobby Rainey, as his 152 rushing yards made up the majority of the Toppers’ 268 yards of offense.

Sophomore quarterback Kawaun Jakes completed just 8-of-24 passes with one interception and no touchdowns.

“I’m sitting here wondering too,” Taggart said. “‘Why aren’t we completing passes? Why isn’t the quarterback scrambling? Why aren’t we getting open?’ I was wondering the same things. Eight-of-24 — that sucks.”

Things looked promising enough for WKU in the first quarter, as the Toppers struck first with a 11-yard touchdown run by Rainey at the 10:04 mark.

The Owls (3-5, 2-3 Sun Belt) answered quickly with a 19-yard touchdown run by junior running back Alfred Morris, tying the game at 7-7 with 3:32 left in the first.

And that’s when both teams’ offenses came to a grinding halt.

WKU walked right into its next points, getting a safety when FAU snapped a punt attempt through the back of the end zone. That boosted the Toppers’ lead to 9-7 with 6:53 left in the second quarter.

WKU had a chance to extend its lead before halftime when freshman cornerback Tyree Robinson intercepted FAU quarterback Jeff Van Camp at the FAU 27-yard line.

But freshman running back Antonio Andrews rushed for a 7-yard loss on first down, and junior offensive lineman Wes Jeffries was called for a personal foul two plays later. That penalty moved the Toppers out of field-goal range, and they were forced to punt.

WKU finished with nine penalties for 78 yards in the game.

“Whenever you get turnovers like that, you’ve got to capitalize,” Taggart said. “You’ve got to get something out of it. We didn’t do that today, and we allowed them to stay in it.”

The Owls were the ones that took advantage after the punt, as Van Camp hooked up with senior receiver Lester Jean for a 62-yard touchdown strike with 1:47 left in the half, giving FAU a 14-9 advantage at the break.

After WKU started the second half with yet another punt, the Toppers finally caught a break when senior linebacker Orlando Misaalefua recovered a fumble by Morris at FAU’s 49-yard line.

Rainey broke off a 38-yard run to start WKU’s next drive, and he punched the ball in four plays later from one yard out to put WKU back up 16-14 with 10:31 left in the third quarter.

Rainey’s score gave the Toppers a one-point lead, and Taggart opted to kick the extra point instead of trying to build a three-point cushion with a two-point conversion.

Taggart said the coaching staff didn’t consider going for two with nearly two full quarters still left to play.

“Nah, it was too early in the game,” he said. “It was too early in the game to go for two there. That wasn’t a thought there. We were going to get the extra point and move on. That was really early in that ballgame.”

Both teams went three-and-out on the next four consecutive drives, grinding out the remainder of the third quarter with little action.

But FAU got a big pass interference call late in the third that put it in WKU’s territory, and kicker Ross Gornall eventually tacked on what became the game-winning field goal — a 26-yarder — with 14:42 left in the fourth quarter.

WKU got three more possessions to take back the lead but came up empty on each.

“We just didn’t execute,” Rainey said. “Big-time players need to step up and make plays, and it didn’t happen.”

The biggest dagger came right after FAU’s field goal, as the Toppers quickly advanced 44 yards downfield.

Jakes then attempted a deep pass to freshman receiver Willie McNeal, who fell down on the play. The miscue allowed FAU cornerback Tavious Polo to easily intercept the pass in the end zone.

Taggart said McNeal actually stumbled over Polo’s foot on the play.

“That was a drive where we were moving the ball and doing some good things,” he said. “Unfortunately, the football gods put that guy’s foot in the way, and Willie tripped.”

WKU punted on its next drive, and Jakes came up two yards short on a scramble on fourth-and-8 on the final possession.

Rainey’s three receptions — good for 17 yards — led WKU. No receiver had more than 19 yards.

Senior linebacker Thomas Majors led all defensive players with 15 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss.

Morris, who was the Sun Belt’s leading rusher last season, was held to 68 rushing yards for FAU.

“We were very pleased with that,” Majors said. “We knew they were going to try to come out and pound the ball, and that was our biggest emphasis — stopping the run. We had to come out and do it, and I feel like we got it done for the most part.”

Van Camp completed 9-of-22 passes for 140 yards.

It’s back to the road now for WKU, heading to Arkansas State at 2 p.m. next Saturday.

“Losing streak” has became a dirty phrase to the Toppers, but after dropping two straight games in disappointing fashion, Taggart said the team has to find a way to show up consistently.

“We did it, so it’s not like we don’t know what it takes,” he said. “We’ve just got to be consistent and not hurt ourselves. But I love these guys. They’re fighting and they’re working their tails off.

“There’s nobody as disappointed as these guys because they’re the ones out there working every single week, every single day, throwing their bodies out there and getting hurt. I love ’em. We’re going to stay together, and we’re going to get this thing going.”