HOUSTON -- Florida Atlantic freshman quarterback Greg Hankerson's debut as a starter was going pretty well, all things considered.
Hankerson, who replaced Jaquez Johnson as FAU's starter in the fifth game of the season, threw a touchdown pass with 6:07 left in the the fourth quarter that figured to propel FAU past Rice to its first Conference USA victory.
But then a Hankerson fumble and an interception on back-to-back offensive plays derailed everything. Rice took advantage of the FAU miscues and pulled out a fourth-quarter comeback for an 18-14 victory on Saturday at Rice Stadium.
"Put it on me," FAU coach Carl Pelini said. "I should have been smarter than to put that much on a freshman. I've got to be smarter how I use my young quarterback."
Midway through the fourth quarter, FAU running back Jonathan Wallace burst into the open field and broke the game wide open. Wallace's 54-yard run set up Hankerson's 15-yard touchdown pass to Nexon Dorvilus that gave FAU a 14-6 lead with 6:07 remaining.
"We felt we had executed as a team," Hankerson said.
That play broke through a stalemate that featured 17 punts.
With Rice's offense failing, its defense came up with a touchdown. Hankerson rolled out to pass on third-and-6 from the FAU 17. He fumbled inside the 10 and Rice defensive end Cody Bauer picked it up and took it 7 yards for a touchdown.
"I'm so proud of how the defense played tonight," Rice coach David Bailiff said. "They kept making plays and kept making plays. Cody Bauer scores the touchdown. Bryce Callahan gets the interception. The defense was the big reason we won tonight."
FAU defensive back Christian Milstead batted down Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue's pass to maintain a 14-12 lead with 4:17 left.
But Rice's defense produced another opportunity.
On first down during FAU's ensuing possession, Callahan intercepted Hankerson. That gave Rice the ball at the FAU 41.
"I made a mistake," Hankerson said. "I just have to take better care of the ball."
Rice moved in quickly from there, scoring on the second play of the drive when running back Darik Dillard broke loose for a 20-yard touchdown run.
FAU outgained Rice 366 yards to 273. Hankerson passed for 272 yards and two touchdowns. Wallace finished with 73 rushing yards on 12 attempts.
Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue completed just 7 of 25 passes for 69 yards.
"The defense played very well," Pelini said. "Certainly well enough for us to win."
FAU took the lead to halftime for the first time in a C-USA game as it led Rice 7-6 on the strength of the big play of the half.
Hankerson connected with wide receiver William Dukes on a go-route near the FAU sideline.
Dukes went the distance for a 58-yard touchdown despite fumbling at the Rice 18. The ball bounced back to the FAU receiver and he was able to scoop it and scoot in for the score.
Hankerson's touchdown pass to Dukes gave FAU a 7-3 lead with 5:01 left in the first quarter.
Dukes appeared to have another long touchdown early in the second quarter, this one an 80-yard strike from Hankerson. But it was wiped out by an offensive pass interference penalty on Dukes.
Still, Hankerson found Dukes three times for 72 yards in the first half, which constituted a huge chunk of the yards gained by either team. FAU led Rice 176-160 in total yards at halftime.
Meanwhile, the FAU defense kept Rice outside of the FAU red zone for most of the first half.
McHargue marched his team to the FAU 19 on Rice's second offensive series of the game. But a holding penalty from there pushed Rice back to the 29 and FAU stiffened from there.
Rice settled for kicker Chris Boswell's 45-yard field goal. It was the only time Rice crossed FAU's 25 in the first two quarters.
Rice had a chance to ice the game with another Boswell field goal late in the fourth quarter, facing fourth-and-10 at the FAU 32. Instead, McHargue threw incomplete and FAU had one more chance to score a go-ahead touchdown.
But Hankerson threw incomplete on fourth-and-3 from the Rice 46 and Rice ran out the clock.
Boswell added a 47-yarder in the second quarter to cut FAU's lead to a point.
"The only way we could lost at that point was to get a field goal blocked," Bailiff said.
NOTES: The Rice-FAU game was the first meeting between the two schools. FAU joined C-USA this season. It is also the first meeting in FBS history between two schools with the Owl mascot. ... Rice had faced two of the top 11 offenses in the nation in Texas A&M, ranked fifth in the nation with 602.3 yards per game, and Houston, 11th with 548.3. FAU entered the game ranked 111th with 315.8 yards per game.