Rare season-opening win sends message to Sun Belt

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Sunday, September 02, 2007

FORT LAUDERDALE Florida Atlantic hasn't had much early-season success in recent years playing against traditional powers.

Maybe the Owls should open with a Sun Belt Conference rival every year after their 27-14 victory over Middle Tennessee on Saturday at Lockhart Stadium had players and coaches excited about the prospects of a successful season.

"I'm thrilled with the outcome of the game," FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger said. "It was a very satisfying win for all of us. It's momentum for the rest of my life and the rest of their life."

FAU started the season 0-5 in 2005 and 0-4 last season, but after beating the Blue Raiders, who were bowl participants last season, FAU is 1-0 for the first time since defeating Hawaii in 2004. More importantly, the Owls defeated a team projected to contend for the Sun Belt championship.

The Blue Raiders may indeed be able to battle back and challenge for the conference title, but the Owls now sit in the driver's seat after one of the biggest victories in school history.

"This was the most nervous I've been before a game in a long, long time," FAU senior defensive end Josh Pinnick said. "There were real butterflies before this game. I'm happy we won, but it's almost like a relief."

The Owls' defense was outstanding and delivered several hits which sent MTSU helmets flying.

"We knew every play they were going to run before they ran it," FAU linebacker Frantz Joseph said. "Before they even snapped the ball, I called out the play about five times

Middle Tennessee quarterback Joe Craddock was sacked four times and the Blue Raiders had just 18 yards rushing on 32 carries.

"I don't know if we blocked then all night," Blue Raiders coach Rick Stockstill said. "I felt like they dominated us up front."

And with the defense playing on top of its game, the pressure was off the Owls' offense, which helped after it got off to a slow start.

FAU quarterback Rusty Smith was 12-of-26 for 195 yards and two touchdowns, but was just 6-of-18 for 36 yards in the first half.

"It seemed like I came out a little rusty," Smith said. "When we came out for the second half, I just settled down out there."

With Smith struggling, the FAU running game cranked out 216 yards, the first time since 2005 the Owls rushed for more than 200 yards.

The Owls got a break on the game's first possession after they were forced to punt. The punt hit the foot of MTSU's Kevin Brown and was recovered by FAU's tight end Rob Housler at the Blue Raiders' 35-yard line. Nine plays later, running back Charles Pierre scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to give FAU a 7-0 lead.

The Owls led 10-0 at halftime and took a 17-0 lead in the third quarter on quick pass from Smith to tight end Jason Harmon for a 42-yard touchdown.

Early in the fourth quarter, FAU went up 24-0 on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Cortez Gent, his first career touchdown.

However, with 10 minutes remaining, the Blue Raiders started to claw back into the game.

Blue Raiders running back Desmond Gee scored a touchdown on a 27-yard underhanded toss from Craddock that snapped a streak of 10 quarters without a touchdown allowed by the FAU defense dating back to the first quarter of last year's game against North Texas.

A blocked punt by the Blue Raiders was returned 32 yards by Michael Cannon and cut the FAU lead to 24-14 with 9:26 remaining.

But, Warley Leroy's second field goal of the game, a 27-yarder with 4:55 remaining ended MTSU's hopes.

The Owls will sit atop the Sun Belt Conference standings until at least Sept. 22, their next conference game, against North Texas.

"I don't see anything that should stop us from here on out, unless its ourselves," said defensive back Corey Small, who had one of FAU's two interceptions. "As long as we don't beat ourselves we should have a lot of success in the Sun Belt."