The football team looked everywhere. It searched through the air. It rummaged around on the ground.
But for the second straight week, the Owls couldn’t find the endzone. Saturday’s 7-3 loss to Western Michigan at Lincoln Financial Field dropped coach Al Golden’s squad to 1-4 overall and 0-2 in the Mid-American Conference on the year.
On Homecoming, it was the Owls’ offensive woes that stole the show.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Chester Stewart made his debut, but sputtered with his arm, going just 10 of 20 for 60 yards. It was the first time in three years the Owls didn’t deliver a victory on Homecoming.
“I missed a lot of plays,” Stewart said. “I missed a touchdown opportunity to Bruce [Francis] down there in the redzone. [I] got a lot of things I need to work on.”
The game plan was simple. Run the ball on the Broncos until they were clawing for the oxygen masks.
“We wanted to come out and just pound the ball down their throat,” Stewart said. “We wanted it to be a physical game, be almost like a street fight. We wanted to just pound them and wear them out so we could pass.”
They accomplished that, as the Owls’ freshman class of running backs found the gaps to gain 136 yards rushing, with redshirt Joe Jones and James Nixon spearheading the attack with 50 and 58 yards, respectively. Stewart provided 38 of his own, but was bottled up most of the game. Unfortunately, the Broncos made the necessary adjustments to stop a hard-charging backfield.
“It’s [Stewart’s] first time out there. I think they knew it so they did a lot of things to try and confuse him,” Golden said. “I think he’s a good talent. Early in the first quarter I thought he managed the game extremely well.”
But the Owls’ young quarterback was on the move all day. Many of his throws were erratic and off target. When the Owls’ tempo steadied, it was a missed opportunity or mental mistake that suffocated their drive. Redshirt junior kicker Jake Brownell missed a 39-yard field goal in the second quarter and a 28-yarder in the fourth.
“When you’re down there just convert those [field goals] and we’re not having this conversation,” Golden said. “There was no protection breakdown. It was just we missed the kick.”
The offense was also hurt by the penalties, which decimated the Owls throughout the game. In a flurry of yellow flags, the Cherry and White coughed up 76 yards on 10 incidents. An interception and a 50-yard dash from Nixon were both called back in the second quarter.
“The timing of the penalties has been destructive,” Golden said. “Execution. It still comes down to execution.”
Despite that, the Owls were winning the battle of field position in the contest, which set them up with ample opportunities to score. Stewart lined up under center deep in Bronco territory four times.
Senior wide receiver Bruce Francis, who led the Owls with four catches for 27 yards, believes that Stewart has the potential, but just needs time.
“We’ve been playing with Adam for so long and Vaughn [Charlton] last year for so long,” Francis said. “It’s tough for a guy like Chester. He’s a freshman. It’s a lot different than practice. The pace is a lot different. I have tremendous confidence in Chester.”
With redshirt senior quarterback Adam DiMichele out four to six weeks with a shoulder injury, Stewart will need to find his collegiate form quickly to stop the Owls’ four-game slide. On Saturday, DiMichele could be seen coaching Stewart on the sidelines.
“He was telling me to get more depth on my drop,” Stewart said. “I wasn’t getting enough depth on my drop. I had to get away from the line. [He said] if I feel pressure from the outside, just step up.”
The tip helped, as Stewart managed to get sacked just once.
The Owls’ next opponent might give Stewart a chance to entertain. Despite a challenging schedule, Miami (Ohio) (1-3) has allowed 30.5 points per game. If the Owls take flight, it will rest on Stewart’s broad shoulders.
While the defense has been nothing short of stellar this season, the endzone has been elusive for the Owls. For Stewart, Francis and the rest of the team’s offensive leaders, the hunt continues.
Anthony Stipa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.