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

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Texas A&M survives potential upset in opener, but needs quick improvements with grueling upcoming schedule

COLLEGE STATION –Ainias Smith provided an early spark for Texas A&M.

Isaiah Spiller and the defense generated the second-half energy that the No. 10 Aggies desperately needed to escape their season opener with a 17-12 win over Vanderbilt.

“A victory is a victory,” A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said, “but all three phases [of the game] didn’t play how I thought we could or how we can.”

In a day filled with upsets and near-upsets from Norman to Baton Rouge, A&M survived despite three lost fumbles — two by senior quarterback Kellen Mond — and also misfired on a fourth-down handoff in the fourth quarter that kept giving the Commodores life.

“We got to protect the football,” Fisher said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Mond finished with 17 of 28 for 189 yards and one touchdown while trying to build chemistry with a group of young receivers.

“He can play much better,” Fisher said, noting that the four-year starter had looked much better in preseason camp.

Spiller provided the offensive boost A&M needed, rushing for 117 yards on eight carries with all but five yards coming in the second half. It was the fifth career 100-yard rushing game for the sophomore, who had runs for 57, 30 and 24 yards.

The A&M defense did the rest, with two key second-half interceptions in the red zone by Demani Richardson and Leon O’Neal. Micheal Clemens sacked Vanderbilt freshman quarterback Ken Seals for an 8-yard loss on third down with A&M clinging to a five-point lead late.

“As a defensive line we wanted to show what we were doing in practice,” Clemens said.

Vanderbilt was forced to punt and A&M killed the clock, with the help of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason.

Senior linebackers Aaron Hansford and Buddy Johnson led the A&M defense

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