FAU can hang with the big boys

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Sunday, October 07, 2007

FORT LAUDERDALE- The legitimacy of South Florida's No. 6 AP national ranking suffered a black eye.

Florida Atlantic's whole program took a big leap, even in a loss.


It was a leap symbolized by FAU tight end Jason Harmon, who hurtled one of USF's defensive stars, cornerback Mike Jenkins, for a 32-yard gain.

FAU fans chanted "overrated" after the Owls rolled up more total yardage after three quarters, 287 to 285. The game was tied at 14-all until 4:33 remained in the third quarter. The Owls trailed by five points until 29 seconds remained in the game. That's when the Bulls ran for a 9-yard touchdown instead of kneeling down to run out the clock, 35-23.

The Owls (3-3) missed field goals of 32, 42 and 45 yards and left the field thinking they had every chance to win this game. And they were right.

"I don't think they're overrated," Harmon said of South Florida. "I think we're on their level now. I think we're right up there with them."

FAU exposed the risks of the strategy USF is using to win. Against West Virginia last week, the Bulls forced six turnovers and produced enough plays on offense to get by. Hidden in the celebration in Tampa was the fact the Mountaineers outgained the Bulls by more than 100 yards. FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger preferred to look at the game as a barometer of his team's rise, rather than an indication USF is overrated.

"Ask West Viriginia and Auburn and the teams they've beaten if they're overrated," Schnellenberger said.

The FAU coach called it "a bittersweet defeat, because we didn't take advantage of all the opportunities we had to win this game.

"The sweet part of it was we played them as well as anybody has this season."

This much is clear: Little brother is catching up faster than anyone expected.

Schnellenberger, the coach of FAU's seven-year-old team, compares 11-year-old USF to an older brother. The Bulls, never ranked prior to this season, provide the "blueprint" for other Florida schools trying to get good fast, Schnellenberger said.

On this day, however, FAU provided the blueprint for how to beat USF, even if the Owls could not close the deal. FAU won the turnover battle, with four takeaways to one. USF came into the game ranked fifth in the nation in turnover margin. FAU was ranked second, and won't lose any ground to USF in that category after this game.

Not only was FAU not intimidated, but the Owls went right after USF standouts like cornerback Jenkins. Receiver Cortez Gent beat him for FAU's first touchdown, and Harmon jumped over him like a piece of lawn furniture.

South Florida linebacker Tryone McKenzie, a high school friend of Harmon's, told him on the field, "Y'all are actually pretty good."

The Bulls arrived with an outsized ranking in a stadium tiny by major-college standards. FAU answered USF's first-ever sellout last week with a full house of its own, although the house was one-third the size of Raymond James Stadium. The capacity at Lockhart Stadium, officially 20,500, burst at the seams with at least 1,100 more than that. Fans sat in walkways and aisles.

The first extra point of the game went out all the way of the stadium and into the parking lot.

Before the game, USF quarterback Matt Grothe remarked he had played in front of high school crowds that size and he was looking forward to a nostalgic experience. It would not seem quaint for long.

"It was a little different than I expected," said Grothe, whose 120 rushing yards, including a 32-yard touchdown scamper on fourth down, helped bail the Bulls out of a major embarrassment.

South Florida coach Jim Leavitt credited FAU for "playing their tails off," but balked at comparing FAU to USF's own climb. "It's a different deal," Leavitt said. "They're not a Big East team. I don't know."

Better get used to it, coach. A major-conference conference membership doesn't protect USF one bit from hungry programs in its own backyard. After this game, Central Florida's hopes will only be raised to bump off the Bulls next week.

As the Owls showed, little brothers aren't always impressed by the trappings of rank.