Commentary: Owls get ground-breaking win

 

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Sunday, September 16, 2007

MIAMI GARDENS There is no proof that Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger hid the sideline chains to let the Minnesota Golden Gophers stew in the South Florida sun for an extra 10 minutes before kickoff.

But Schnellenberger, 73, had no trouble finding a measuring stick after Saturday's 42-39 upset thrill ride at Dolphin Stadium. The breakthrough marked FAU's first win in 10 tries against teams from college football's elite conferences: the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, SEC and Big East.

 
 

"It's a new high-water mark," Schnellenberger said. "I told our players it certified us like a notary public that you can play at this level. I think this is a validation."

Schnellenberger said the game represented a pivotal moment, such as when his 1979 Miami team beat Penn State in quarterback Jim Kelly's first major win. Or when his 1990 Louisville team beat Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl.

"I guess hyperbole is in order," Schnellenberger said, smiling. "This game is obviously not of that stature, but when you have a program in its infancy, beating a Big Ten team will help build the program."

Granted, this is not your father's Big Ten, with Michigan humbled by Appalachian State and now Minnesota humiliated with its first loss to a team from the Sun Belt Conference. Under first-year coach Tim Brewster, the defensively porous Gophers lost to Bowling Green and barely edged Miami (Ohio).

It's still a huge step for FAU, though. And in the big picture of the program, the timing was every bit as good as quarterback Rusty Smith's rhythm on a day he threw for a school-record 463 yards. FAU trustees are scheduled to hear presentations and vote Tuesday on a plan to build a 30,000-seat stadium.

"It's the high point in the history of a young program," Athletic Director Craig Angelos said. "The way it dovetails into the vote on Tuesday, it's a magical time for FAU football."

Unlike the program's most prestigious past victory, a 2004 upset of Hawaii, this one happened at home. Never mind it took place before a Marlins-sized crowd (10,759) in cavernous Dolphin Stadium. That did nothing to dim the celebration of FAU players, who stood at the railing of the seats to savor the moment with friends and family.

"I've been anticipating this my whole career," said former Glades Central linebacker Cergile Sincere, who, now a senior, forced two fumbles on 10 tackles, six of them solo. "We knew we could do this. This is South Florida football. This is what we do. We run in the heat."

In 2005, Minnesota ran over FAU behind a big line and All-America running back Laurence Maroney 46-7.

This time, though, Minnesota was caught in transition from a power running game to a spread offense of its own. That's just the game FAU wanted to play in 88 degrees in Miami Gardens. FAU's advantage in speed helped it build a 35-14 halftime cushion. Minnesota still has 10 300-pounders on its roster, compared with FAU's four, but not enough fast skill players with experience.

FAU players chuckled when they heard Minnesota turned off the air conditioning in its indoor practice facility to get ready. But the Gophers did have to spend another 10 minutes in the heat while officials located the sideline chains at the beginning of the game.

It wasn't that Minnesota's whole team wilted, because the Gophers outscored FAU 25-7 in the second half. But the heat did affect individual matchups, particularly after FAU opened the game in a spread, no-huddle offense designed to tire the Gophers quickly.

It worked. Linebackers melted like a stick of butter trying to cover FAU's backs and receivers in their own steamy back yard. FAU's defense, meanwhile, forced seven turnovers, including the fourth and final interception to seal the game with 3 seconds remaining.

And the result was the most important victory for a Boca Raton commuter school with big ideas about its 7-year-old football team.

"Any day we knock off a Big Ten team, it's a huge victory," FAU President Frank Brogan said. "At the end of the day, it helps put us on the map."