Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 11, 2007
FORT LAUDERDALE — Although Florida Atlantic has made a habit of needing to rally to win Sun Belt Conference games this season, the Owls were absolutely ecstatic after defeating Arkansas State 34-31 on Saturday.
FAU (5-4, 4-1 Sun Belt) erased an 11-point lead with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, and its maligned defense answered challenge after challenge with the game on the line to stay alive in the race for a Sun Belt title.
"I'm really proud of the football team for their last three outings," FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger said. "They have held together emotionally and united as a team. They continued to believe they had the capacity to come back and win the game."
After the game, Schnellenberger addressed the announced crowd of 18,540 - the actual attendance at Lockhart Stadium was likely half that - and thanked them for their support as players celebrated with the fans after the Owls' home finale.
A happy ending didn't seem possible a short time before, but the FAU defense held Arkansas State without points on the Indians' last three possessions of the game.
"We had to win this game," senior linebacker Cergile Sincere said. "We've been giving up big plays, but this was our championship game."
The defensive stands allowed FAU's offense, which has produced in the fourth quarter of the Owls' past four Sun Belt games, to come through again.
With the game slipping away, quarterback Rusty Smith tossed a short pass to fullback Willie Rose who got a block from right guard David Matlock and was able to outrun the secondary down the right sideline for a 56-yard touchdown with 9:57 left.
"It felt a lot longer than that, but it was a great play and it worked out for the best," Rose said of his longest career touchdown.
The two-point conversion failed, and FAU trailed 31-26.
After the Indians were held to a three-and-out possession, FAU took over at its 26-yard line with 8:51 left.
The Owls converted on three third downs, including a third-and-15 play when receiver Chris Bonner caught a 22-yard pass just inbounds on the right sideline to keep the drive alive.
With 2:49 left, junior fullback DiIvory Edgecomb stuck the ball across the goal line. The Owls made a two-point conversion to go up 34-31, and the defense forced Arkansas State to turn the ball over on downs at midfield.
"I wanted it real bad," Edgecomb said. "We would have left with a real sour taste in our mouth if they had won the game because we let them stay in it."
The Owls have relied on fourth-quarter comebacks four times this season.
"We pulled it out, and I don't know where it came from," said Smith, who was 22-of-42 for 268 yards and three touchdowns - including two fourth-quarter TDs - and two interceptions. Smith also ran for a 1-yard touchdown early in the game.
Schnellenberger said Smith sustained a rib injury in the first half that might have affected his play.
It looked bleak for the Owls after Arkansas State running back Reggie Arnold scored his third touchdown of the game in a 4-yard run to give the Indians a 31-20 lead in the fourth.
After being held scoreless the past two years by FAU, it didn't take long for Arkansas State (4-6, 2-4) to finally score against the Owls. The Indians scored 1:44 into the game on a 15-yard pass from QB Corey Leonard to Arnold after Smith threw an interception on the game's second play.
FAU led 17-10 at halftime, but the Indians came out strong in the second half, scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions.
"When they came out and those two touchdowns it definitely took the wind out of us," FAU junior linebacker Frantz Joseph said. "But that's what good teams are made of. When you're down you fight and get back up."