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BOCA RATON — Florida Atlantic's two-touchdown lead quickly diminished in the second half Saturday night after Middle Tennessee scored 24 unanswered points for a 27-17 victory.
The Owls (5-7, 3-5 Conference USA) are finished for 2021 and will not be going to a bowl game. It was their fourth straight loss - all coming with the team needing one win for bowl eligibility and, at one point, in place to challenge for the top spot in the East.
What seemed to be an easy victory for FAU turned around in the second half after the Owls had minus-2 yards rushing on 13 carries, and converted only 3 of 10 third downs, resulting in four punts. Middle Tennessee (6-6, 4-4) capitalized on the errors and went on its scoring binge.
“We didn’t play well enough to win that game,” FAU coach Willie Taggart said. “We got to do a better job coaching, and we got to do a better job as players and execute.”
Despite the Owls stalling on offense for most of the game, the defense came away with three sacks, two forced fumbles, and five tackles for loss to keep the Blue Raiders away from the end zone in the first half.
That changed in the third quarter, with Taggart saying it was because the offense did not get into the end zone after forcing the Blue Raiders to punt on their first possession of the second half.
“We needed to score on that drive,” Taggart said. “It was disappointing we got the ball back and drove down the field and didn’t get anything but three points. … It’s so important that we take advantage on first and second down and put ourselves in good third-down situations.”
Here are five takeaways:
N'Kosi Perry’s final game?
Saturday's game was the first time FAU quarterback N'kosi Perry threw more than 300 yards since a 329-yard performance against Florida International on October 2.
He finished with 328 yards, two touchdowns and an interception on 32 of 49 pass attempts. It was possibly the final game for Perry, as he transferred to FAU from Miami as a graduate student.
He has one more year of eligibility due to the NCAA coronavirus rule allowing players to use that extra year. But Taggart said he wishes 2021 could have ended better for him and the other seniors.
“I hate it. I hate it for our seniors more than anything,” Taggart said. “But we just didn’t play well enough.”
The Owls had 193 yards of offense in the second half after a 220-yard first half performance. Entering the third quarter, the Owls had a 14-3 lead as they kicked off to the Blue Raiders.
After forcing a punt and getting the ball back, all FAU could muster was a field goal. It was all downhill from there as the Blue Raiders stormed back.
Tight end John Mitchell agreed the team needed to put more points on the board in the second half to put pressure on Middle Tennessee.
“Things just took a turn for the worst and that’s just the way it was tonight,” Mitchell said.
FAU defense falters in second half
Coming into Saturday's game, FAU ranked 82nd in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game. Until the end of the third quarter, the Owls looked like the best run defense in the country by holding the Blue Raiders to just 22 yards on 15 carries.
Martell Pettaway had other plans, however, after rushing 65 yards to end the third quarter and help Middle Tennessee put points on the board. The team finished the game with 127 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground.
"In the second half, I thought we had poor tackling,” Taggart said. “That’s what allowed them to get down the field quite a bit. I thought in the first half we did good job at that, but in the second half we didn’t do such a good job at tackling.”
100 wins for Stockstill
Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill was looking for his 100th win of the season heading into Old Dominion last week, but the Blue Raiders lost 24-17 to the Monarchs.
The former Florida State quarterback came into Saturday's game looking to defeat the Owls and reach triple digits, and this time was able to obtain it. Saturday’s win puts Stockstill at 100-98 for his coaching career dating back to 2006, making him the third coach in Middle Tennessee history to reach 100 as well as the 30th active FBS coach with 100 wins.
No bowling for the Owls.
An Owls victory would have made them bowl eligible for the fourth time in five years.
CBS Sports projected the team to compete in the Bahamas Bowl, while Sports Illustrated had them in the Las Vegas Bowl. Ultimately, a 5-7 record makes them ineligible to play in any bowl game.
The last time the Owls did not compete in a bowl game was in 2018, when they also went 5-7 under former coach Lane Kiffin.
“We would’ve loved to have a bowl game to continue the streak, but more importantly for our young guys to get some extra practices in,” Taggart said. “We were banking on those extra practices and extra game, but unfortunately we didn’t do enough to get that.”
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Florida Atlantic Owls loses to Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders in C-USA game