Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Fort Lauderdale — In its first four games this season, Florida Atlantic was an overmatched underdog that came into the game with little chance of winning.
Thursday the Owls turned the tables and did the pounding on a lesser-known opponent as FAU easily defeated Southern Utah 32-7 at Lockhart Stadium.
The victory, FAU's second in a row, was its first at Lockhart Stadium since 2004 and the first time FAU has won a home opener.
It's also the first winning streak for FAU since 2004.
"I hope you can see the potential of what we have going here," FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger said. "Not because this was such a wonderful, big win, but it was a continuation."
The Owls (2-4) had no problem with the Thunderbirds, a Division I-AA team that hasn't defeated a I-A team in nine years.
FAU players said this week they wouldn't have a letdown after winning last week at Louisiana-Monroe, and the Owls also showed they were taking no victory for granted: The starters were still in during the fourth quarter.
"We've been in their shoes, going up against a harder opponent and we were always focused," FAU quarterback Sean Clayton said. "They were as focused as we are and I came to play, I know that."
With Louisiana-Lafayette, the top team in the Sun Belt Conference, coming Wednesday to Lockhart Stadium, FAU wanted a good showing against the Thunderbirds (3-4).
"This gives us momentum going into that game," said running back Charles Pierre, who rushed for more than 100 yards for the first time in his career for a total of 103 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. "They weren't that bad, They played hard and you could tell they really, really wanted to beat us just like we prepared to beat Clemson."
FAU had 301 yards in total offense at halftime.
The Owls scored on their first possession when Warley Leroy hit a 40-yard field goal, the longest of his career, to give FAU a 3-0 lead.
On the Owls' next possession, they drove to Southern Utah's 1 and took three plays to punch the ball into the end zone, finally scoring a on a 1-yard, diving run by Pierre. The PAT conversion failed after a mishandled snap and the Owls led 9-0.
Of the first play of the second quarter, Clayton connected with tight end Jason Harmon in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 15-0.
Leroy matched his career longest field goal with 5:06 remaining in the second quarter to give FAU a 18-0 lead.
Just before halftime, redshirt freshman Rusty Smith engineered a 10-play, 70-yard drive using the hurry-up offense to give FAU a 25-0 lead after Smith threw his first collegiate touchdown pass, a 1-yarder to Chad Wilkes with 25 seconds remaining in the half.
Smith was 6-for-8 for 70 yards on the drive.
The most exciting play of the night was when Clayton, who was 14-of-23 for 208 yards, threw the ball near the sideline to freshman receiver Avery Holey, who sprinted down the sideline far enough ahead of his defender to leap into the end zone. The unnecessary dive cost Holley an unsportsmanlike penalty and earned a stern talk from Schnellenberger.
Defensive backs Gedel Merzius and Rickey Bethel had interceptions for FAU's defense, which didn't surrender its first points until 4:12 remaining in the game when quarterback Southern Utah Wes Marshall threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brett Johansen to cut FAU's lead to 32-7.
The announced crowd of 6,431 was well short of FAU projections of 12-15,000