FAU’s Willie Taggart happy with second-half improvements in season opener, but feels more can be made

The FAU Owls relied on steady defensive play in their season opener versus Charlotte on Saturday at FAU Stadium, and were rewarded with a 21-17 victory.



a group of people standing next to a football ball: FAU coach Willie Taggart watches his team play Charlotte on Saturday.


© Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS
FAU coach Willie Taggart watches his team play Charlotte on Saturday.

Despite having several first-time starters, FAU’s defense was stout and held down the fort for significant stretches of the game after the Owls went scoreless in the first half.

Outside linebacker Leighton McCarthy won Conference USA defensive player of the week Monday after having 10 tackles (five solo), three sacks and a forced fumble against Charlotte. The Owls had six sacks and 12 tackles for losses in the game.

“When I walked into the locker room [at halftime], I heard the defense fired up, and telling the offense ‘we got your back,’ ” Taggart said. “I told the offense we needed to match the defense’s energy right now, and the way you do that is making plays. They took the challenge. They didn’t fold and they didn’t give in.”

The 49ers didn’t score in the middle two quarters, which allowed FAU to take a 21-17 lead with all of its touchdowns coming in the third quarter.

Quarterback Nick Tronti was better in the second half in the first start of his collegiate career. He completed all six of his passes for 68 yards in the final two quarters, finishing with 98 passing yards and two touchdowns on 11-of-22 passes for the game.

Taggart said the offense could improve its start to games by Tronti settling down earlier and the offensive line being more physical.

“When it comes to Nick, he’s got to go through his progressions,” he said. “I didn’t think Nick did that in the first half. It was just dropping back and trying to figure it all out during the snap and it’s hard to play that position doing it that way. Once he calmed down, he started executing.”

FAU is scheduled to play Southern Miss on Saturday in Hattiesburg, Miss. Starting safety Jordan Helm, who didn’t play versus Charlotte for an undisclosed reason, will also miss the game against the Golden Eagles according to Taggart.

A hurricane could make landfall by Friday either in or near Mississippi, according to WLOX-13 in Biloxi, Miss.

Taggart said the program is communicating with Southern Miss about the situation should changes need to be made.

“With all these pushbacks we’ve had so far, I don’t even want to think that far,” said Taggart, referring to FAU’s first four games being canceled or postponed due to COVID-19 related reasons. “I believe we’ll play. It’d be nice if it just stayed out in the ocean and didn’t hit the country at all. It’s unfortunate, that part of the area has been hit quite a bit. We’re going to keep an eye on it, make sure we’re in good communication with Southern Miss and do what’s best for our student-athletes and everyone.”

Hurt running back unit

Taggart said runnings backs James Charles and BJ Emmons are both questionable for this Saturday’s game.

Charles had a “stinger” after last Saturday’s game, according to Taggart, but finished the game. Emmons injured his left ankle towards the beginning of the game and didn’t record a carry after FAU’s second drive midway through the first quarter.

Charles finished with 45 rushing yards on seven attempts, while Emmons had 13 yards on four attempts. Larry McCammon added 43 rushing yards on six attempts.

Regardless of their status for Saturday, Malcolm Davidson’s expected to have a larger role on the offense against Southern Miss than he did against Charlotte.

The junior running back finished with 18 rushing yards against the 49ers on four attempts, tied for fourth-most on the team. Davidson, who didn’t receive his first carry until the fourth quarter, was the Owls’ leading rusher last season with 711 yards and nine touchdowns on 102 carries.

“Moving forward, there will be a better rotation with those guys moving forward,” Taggart said. “Having that first game, there was a lot of learning for a lot of us. That’s the good thing about having the first game — you find things you can be better at and that’s one of the areas, especially when we have so many running backs back out.

“I told Malcolm, ‘closed mouths don’t get fed.’ He’s got to speak up, too, when he’s out there. That’s one of those things where we can be better as coaches and players — making sure we’re good from a substitution standpoint.”

FAU’s offensive improvements in the second half were a result of more and better running opportunities. The Owls ran for 175 yards on 20 attempts in the second half after recording 46 rushing yards on 13 attempts in the first half.

Tronti ran 10 times for 94 yards, scoring another touchdown.

“We showed we can run the football, and we can run it from a lot of different ways from a lot of different people being able to do it,” Taggart said. “A lot of it comes down to our quarterback making good reads. When we do it well, we can have a really good football team.”

Maskless fans

With the Owls allowing 20 percent capacity for spectators at FAU Stadium, 5,657 fans were in attendance for the season opener according to the university.

While most people in the stadium abided by the face mask requirements inside the stadium (unless the individual is eating or drinking in their assigned seat), there were several others who chose to watch the game while not following the mask rules.

Taggart said he didn’t notice fans in the stands not wearing masks, but said individuals need to be held accountable to the protocols in place.

“We all got to be smart,” Taggart said. “There are rules to what and how we do things, and we all have to abide by them. It doesn’t matter how you feel about it, that’s just the right thing to do. Respect the people around — that’s something we all have to do no matter how we feel about them. We have to hold folks accountable to doing it.”

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