BOCA RATON (AP) — Brass horns blared and a din rose from the student section as fans stomped their feet when Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger led his Owls onto the field for the first game in their new on-campus stadium.
Crowd excitement gradually dissipated from there, and by game’s end the stands were almost empty. Aside from the new home, the winless Owls gave fans little to cheer about Saturday and lost to Western Kentucky, 20-0.
“I was feeling like a proud father of a newborn baby that had all the earmarks of growing up to be a fine young man or a fine young lady,” Schnellenberger said. “That feeling ebbing away to the realization we weren’t going to win … that made the wonderfulness of the day melt away to the agony of where we are now with the team.”
The Owls (0-6, 0-3 Sun Belt) find themselves in danger of going winless in their final year under the 77-year-old Schnellenberger, who will retire after the season.
But his legacy is already assured, thanks to the stadium he had sought since starting the program from scratch in 1998. The announced crowd of 29,103 fell just shy of the 30,000-seat capacity, with the turnout creating such a logjam that some fans didn’t reach their seats until the second quarter.
It turned out there wasn’t much to see.
“I want to apologize to the fans,” senior defensive back Marcus Bartels said. “They were awesome. They were loud. It was a great environment. I feel so bad we let them down.”
Most of the problems were on the offensive side; Florida Atlantic totaled only six first downs and 121 yards. Quarterback David Kooi struggled in his first career start replacing an injured Graham Wilbert, but moving the ball has been a persistent problem for the Owls, who have scored only seven touchdowns all season.
“The buck stops with me,” Schnellenberger said. “I’ve got to find a way to solve this problem.”
Not all of the day’s frustration involved the offense. As the aroma of tailgate parties filled the air, the arriving crowd created a campus traffic jam, and long lines at ticket windows snarled stadium entrances.
“These are good problems to have,” athletic director Craig Angelos said. “We’ve never really had those.”
Angelos cheerfully confessed to other glitches. The choreography of the team’s grand entrance before kickoff was slightly out of sync, as was a helicopter flyover. A plan to have an owl mascot fly into the stadium had to be scrubbed because of an injury to the animal.
Still, the lively atmosphere represented a big upgrade for a program that previously played home games at the Miami Dolphins’ stadium or a high school field. The crowd included more than 5,000 students, many wearing T-shirts that read “The House Howard Built.”
“We didn’t put any points on the board and we lost, but it was still a monumental day for everybody,” Kooi said. “Sorry we didn’t get it done.”
Schnellenberger scowled from the sideline as his offense repeatedly malfunctioned. The Owls finished with more punts than first downs, and only two possessions ended in opposing territory. Three missed field goals by Western Kentucky kept the game from being even more lopsided.
Bobby Rainey was the primary spoiler, outgaining the entire Owls’ offense by rushing for 131 yards and two touchdowns. The victory gave Western Kentucky consecutive wins for the first time since 2007.
“We wanted to make history and be the first team to win in this stadium,” Hilltoppers coach Willie Taggart said. “And we did that.”
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