Birmingham. Ala — Up by 29-23 with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter at UAB Saturday, the FAU offense took the field knowing that it needed only a field goal to win.
The Owls were familiar with that scenario — last week, up by eight with five minutes remaining against Rice, FAU also needed only a field goal on their last possession to seal the victory.
A loss to UAB would have pulled the plug on those hopes, but there was a different factor at play at Legion Field, and he wore No. 12.
FAU didn't kick a game-icing field goal — they opted to score a touchdown instead.
Jaquez Johnson's 54-yard run and subsequent 5-yard touchdown pass to William Dukes gave FAU a 14-point lead and left only UAB 88 seconds to counter, as FAU won its first-ever Conference USA game 37-23.
Johnson had a career day in his return start from a shoulder injury that kept him out of the Rice loss. The sophomore junior college transfer had 404 yards of total offense, 299 coming through the air and 105 on the run, scoring three touchdowns in the process.
Those gaudy stats didn’t grab the attention of Carl Pelini though, the coach was more interested in the zeros next to Johnson’s name, representing turnovers. FAU entered Saturday’s game with 14 turnovers — the fourth-worst total in the nation.
“The turnovers went away today,” Pelini said. “I kept telling our offense all week if we could just take care of the ball, then we would be a pretty good offense...In the last two games, we took big teams to the wire and had nine turnovers while doing it. Today, we took care of those mistakes and look what happened. We were able to do that today.”
The stellar offensive performance masked a sub-par game from the FAU defensive — a performance that kept UAB in the contest until late in the fourth quarter.
FAU allowed a relatively minimal 307 yards to UAB, but there wasn’t a filler yard on the Blazers’ stat sheet. UAB had eight plays of 20-plus yards Saturday.
After trading leads, FAU jumped ahead 29-23 in the third quarter on Jay Warren’s first career touchdown run, a 3-yard score that was set up two plays before by a 53-yard Jonathan Wallace scamper.
That scoreline held until Johnson’s game-sealing drive thanks to two FAU fourth-quarter defensive stops on UAB’s singular preceding possession.
FAU had forced UAB to go three-and-out deep in their own territory, but a questionable running into the kicker call on defensive end Martin Wright gave UAB a new set of downs.
Unfazed by the tough break, the FAU defense locked down again, with defensive tackle Trevon Coley stuffing UAB running back Darrin Reeves (130 total yards Saturday) for a loss on a third-and-two on the UAB 32, forcing the punt, which was not flagged the second time around.
The offensive performance also masked what could easily be considered one of the worst special teams performances in program history. FAU kicker Mitch Anderson had two kicks blocked Saturday and missed a field goal wide left Saturday, and when backup Dalton Schomp spelled him for an extra point, he had his kicked blocked as well. Punting was not a strength and even kickoffs became problematic.
Pelini admitted the defense woes and special teams problems will have to be corrected if FAU wants to play in a bowl game — but as the head coach saw it, at least they still have a chance to do just that.
“I told them after the game, wins aren’t always perfect,” Pelini said. “We did make a lot of mistakes, but what was different this week is that we had guys step up and make plays when we needed them to. This is how we win football games.”