Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2007
MIAMI — When Florida Atlantic defeated Florida International last season, it sent the Owls into an off-season where they realized they weren't far from winning a Sun Belt Conference title.
After the Owls defeated the Golden Panthers 55-23 on Saturday, FAU knows exactly how close it is to winning a conference championship.
FAU's victory in front of an announced crowd of 6,122 in the next-to-last game at the Orange Bowl means the Owls' matchup with Troy next weekend will determine which team earns the automatic berth to the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 21.
"Without this win tonight we wouldn't have had that chance," FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger said. "With this magnificent win that will buoy our confidence and our spirits, we will have a legitimate chance to go up there and beat Troy at their place."
The winner of Troy and FAU will face Memphis, which accepted a bid Saturday to play in the New Orleans Bowl. The Tigers are 6-5 and finished 5-2 in Conference USA.
The Owls (6-5, 5-1 Sun Belt) won their fifth Shula Bowl in six tries to extend FIU's losing streak to 23-games - the longest current streak in the nation - and spoil the first game in this series for FIU coach Mario Cristobal.
"I enjoyed the intensity of it," said Cristobal, whose Golden Panthers fell to 0-11. "I enjoyed everything it represents and what it's going to represent, but certainly in no way shape or form did I enjoy losing."
But FAU enjoyed the game from start to finish.
The 55 points were the most FAU has scored in a game, topping its 51-3 victory against Division I-AA Siena in 2003.
"We came into this game with confidence and worked together as a team," said FAU quarterback Rusty Smith, who set a school single-game record with four touchdown passes and was 20-of-30 for 330 yards.
The Owls broke the game open in the second quarter.
A 5-yard run by DiIvory Edgecomb on the first play of the quarter capped a 96-yard drive that took 12 plays and gave the Owls a 14-0 lead.
On their ensuing possession, sophomore tight end Rob Housler lined up as a wide receiver on a first-and-10 play from the FAU 32-yard line, took a pitch from running back Charles Pierre on a reverse and sprinted down the sideline for a 68-yard touchdown.
The play, Housler's first career touchdown, was the longest run in Owls history.
With just over two minutes remaining before halftime, Smith hit Chris Bonner in the right corner of the end zone to cap a six-play, 80-yard drive that gave the Owls a 28-3 lead.
But FAU still wasn't through.
After forcing FIU to punt, the Owls took over on their own 31 with 1:31 remaining in the half. On their first play of the series, the Owls ran a quick screen pass to sophomore Cortez Gent, who cruised into the end zone for a 69-yard touchdown.
The 28 points scored by the Owls in the second quarter was their most points scored in a quarter this season.
With the win the Owls became bowl eligible for the first time, but its likely the only way FAU will earn its first bowl appearance will be to defeat Troy.
"This is a stepping stone for the Troy game next week," FAU senior linebacker Cergile Sincere said. 'This game will prepare us and we have a lot of confidence.
"FIU got in the way and now we have a conference championship game next week."
Shula Bowl domination
With its win Saturday, FAU improves to 5-1 all-time against FIU.
2002: Florida Atlantic 31, Florida International 21
Owls take a 21-2 lead at halftime and hold on to beat the first-year Golden Panthers.
2003: Florida Atlantic 32, Florida International 23
FAU stays alive for the Division I-AA playoffs by rallying from 17-0 second-quarter deficit.
2004: Florida Atlantic 17, Florida International 10
Owls QB Jared Allen throws for 311 yards and two TD passes to Roosevelt Bynes.
2005: Florida International 52, Florida Atlantic 6
Host FIU ties an NCAA record by returning four interceptions for touchdowns.
2006: Florida Atlantic 31, Florida International 0
FAU freshman QB Rusty Smith throws for 2 TDs and FIU falls to 0-11.
2007: Florida Atlantic 55, Florida International 23
FAU cruises to a 35-3 halftime lead as Rusty Smith throws for 330 yards and school-record 4 TDs.