Rising to the occasion: FAU wins its second straight bowl

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Friday, December 26, 2008

DETROIT Florida Atlantic, a team many believed didn't deserve to play in the post-season, took another step forward with a 24-21 victory over Central Michigan Friday in the Motor City Bowl.

The Owls, who had to lobby several bowls before being selected in the 11th hour, stymied the Chippewas' spread offense long enough to get their passing game untracked.

Rusty Smith threw for 306 yards and two touchdowns, including a 52-yard scoring pass to Chris Bonner midway through the third quarter to give the Owls a 17-10 lead they did not relinquish.

The pass, thrown on the run after Smith was flushed out of the pocket, was intended for Cortez Gent, who was sliding on the ground around the 5-yard line as a streaking Bonner cut in front of him to catch the ball in stride and easily score.

The play capped a season-long 98-yard drive.

Gent, who had seven catches for 98 yards, got his touchdown about 13 minutes later on a 16-yard pass from Smith, giving the Owls a 24-13 lead with 10:17 to play.

Central Michigan cut the lead to 24-21 on a 15-yard scoring pass from Dan LeFevour to Antonio Brown and the two-point conversion with 3:09 remaining but the Owls recovered the on-side kick and ran out the clock.

FAU had to feel good about being the visitors at Ford Field, the home of the NFL Detroit Lions. Visiting teams were 8-0 there this season. The 0-15 Lions are one loss from going down as the worst team in NFL history.

The victory gives FAU a 7-6 record and preserves coach Howard Schnellenberger's perfect bowl record. Schnellenberger is 6-0 in bowl games, winning two each at Miami, Louisville and FAU. The Owls are now 2-0 in bowls following last season's victory over Memphis in New Orleans.

Smith finished 20-of-35. He overcame four sacks and a lost fumble early the game. Charles Pierre became the first Owl to rush for 1,000 yards, gaining 77 yards and finishing the season with 1,014. Pierre had 45 yards entering the Owls final possession with three minutes remaining.

But it was a defense that has been maligned for much of the season that deserved a lot of credit for this victory.

The Chippewas, who entered the game averaging more than 427 yards per game, finished with 372. LeFevour, the total offense leader in the Mid-American Conference, was 27-of-40 for 241 yards.

The Owls were able to slow the Chippewas despite a rash of injuries. Free safety Ed Alexander injured his hamstring in practice this week and did not play. His backup, Carldayle Brantley, who had in interception in the first quarter, left the game later in the half. Tackle Jervonte Jackson was injured midway through the third quarter but returned in the fourth quarter.

On the other side, the Owls played the second half without fullback Willie Rose, who suffered a stinger late in the first half.

The start of the game was far from an artistic beauty. One stretch of five snaps included a LeFevour fumble on fourth-and-1, a Smith fumble and a LeFevour interception.

FAU took advantage of the interception by Brantley and drove 66 yards, capped by DiIvory Edgecomb's 1-yard leap, to take a 7-0 lead.

The defenses continued to dominate through the conclusion of the half, which ended 10-10 after Jupiter's Ross Gornall connected on the first field-goal attempt of his career, from 36 yards, with 47 seconds to play in the half.

Central Michigan scored a touchdown and field goal on back-to-back drives but went the final 9:30 without a first down.