By Louis Addeo-Weiss
BOCA RATON – In what turned out to be head coach Lane Kiffin’s final game as head coach at Florida Atlantic University, the Owls delivered a face-pounding beatdown of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers, 49-6, giving the Owls their second Conference-USA title in three seasons.
With rumors swirling over the past couple of weeks about Kiffin possibly joining the ranks of a Power Five school, they were confirmed when it was announced a mere half-hour following the game’s conclusion that Kiffin would become the next head coach over at Ole Miss.
The 2017 team, who also won under Kiffin, defeated North Texas 41-17 at FAU Stadium. That team would go onto beat Akron 50-3 in the Boca Raton Bowl, finishing the season 11-3.
Speaking with Kiffin in his postgame conference, I asked the now former-Florida Atlantic head coach what made those championship teams so special and how they compared, his answer spoke to the resiliency of Owls as a team.
“I think very similarly. They won the conference championship, they won every game by double-digits outside of one game, which was Marshall, started slow, and had a chance to win 11 games.”
The 43-point margin of victory represents the largest mark between the two opponents, topping UAB’s 56-29 victory over FAU on November 7, 2009.
One can argue that UAB’s schedule, the easiest amongst the 130 college teams, according to College Football-Reference’s Strength of Schedule (SOS) metric, could justify why the Owls offense put up a hefty 585 yards on the 15th ranked defense by average points-per-game.
The Owls would win the pre-game coin toss for the 12th time in 13 games this season.
In the first three possessions of the game, both offenses totaled just 16 yards, with the highlight early on being the sack on UAB QB Dylan Hopkins by Owls’ DE Damian Horton.
However, the Owls would score on their second possession, though that wouldn’t come easy. A 20-yard carry by Malcolm Davidson set up a first-and-goal at UAB’s 2-yard line, but Davidson’s 4 ensuing carries totaled just 1 yard, a gutsy 4-down attempt resulted in the first score of the game – a score coming on behalf of the legs of BJ Emmons.
In a first-quarter devoid of the dull and anti-climatic label, following the Owls’ first strike, Hopkins appeared to have hit redshirt junior receiver Austin Watkins Jr. on a forty-yard pass in the endzone for a touchdown – one which Watkins looked to have captured with merely one hand – only to be ruled incomplete upon further review.
Despite the early impressions of what looked to be a defensive showcase for both teams, time would soon tell us that this narrative surrounding the defense would center solely on the Owls.
Owls’ QB, Chris Robison, who entered play with 3,125 passing yards, connected with Deangelo Antoine for a 75-yard touchdown, tied the record for the longest touchdown pass in Conference-USA Championship history.
Cornerback Meiko Dotson, who entered Saturday leading the nation in interceptions with 8, would add to his total when he picked off Dylan Hopkins near the tail-end of the first.
The second-quarter appeared to signify further the crushing of the souls of all UAB-faithful watching at home and at FAU Stadium.
Following an unsuccessful drive for the Blazers, with 6:46 to go in the first half, punter Kyle Greenwell would see his punt attempt blocked and returned by freshmen linebacker Eddie Williams for another Owls touchdown.
Senior tight end and Reese’s All-Star selection Harrison Bryant, who starred in the C-USA East victory last week versus Southern Miss., where he caught three touchdown passes, would find himself in the endzone again with an 8-yard reception making for his 7th touchdown of the season.
Bryant would cross the 1,000-yard threshold with an 11-yard reception in the third quarter, becoming the third C-USA tight end to do so.
Following the end of the first half, the Owls would hold a commanding 35-6 lead over the Blazers, gaining nearly three times as many yards as their opponent, 304-113.
Given a lead of these proportions, the Owls resorted to prevent defense the rest of the way, with their second C-USA title as good as won.
That prevent defense the Owls played didn’t hinder them from continuing to set records, with cornerback Chris Tooley’s fourth-quarter interception giving the Owls 21 interceptions, most among the 130 college football programs in 2019, and the most in program history.
Owls QB Chris Robison, who ended the game with 267 passing yards and 4 touchdowns, won the game’s MVP-award. Robison also added a season-high 30 rushing yards, giving him 297 yards of total offense in the victory.
Given the fact that Kiffin is now moving onto greener pastures, conference, and monetary-wise, the victory appears a bit bittersweet, but this shouldn’t take away from the joy running through the city of Boca Raton.