FAU's Rusty Smith has struggled, but confidence remains

Rusty Smith shifts in his seat, stares the questioner in the eyes and once again tries to explain what has gone wrong.

Florida Atlantic's high-powered offense has been grounded and as its leader Smith is the focus of attention.

The quarterback is the preseason Sun Belt Player of the Year who was expected to surpass the 32 touchdowns and 3,688 yards passing he had last season, but instead has directed an offense that has not scored a touchdown in the past two games.

Coach Howard Schnellenberger had boasted that Smith, a junior, would one day be a first-round NFL Draft pick. But Smith is coming off a four-interception performance against Minnesota, a team he had torched for 463 yards and five touchdowns last season.

"I can't say it is not bothering me," Smith said of the criticism after FAU's 1-3 start. "But it's not bothering me bad enough to where it will hinder my play."

What is hindering Smith's play is the question hanging over the team as the Owls start their conference schedule tonight at Middle Tennessee, starting at 8 on ESPN2.

Smith and Schnellenberger insist there is nothing physically wrong with Smith, and that he has made some bad decisions, faced a lot of pressure that has lessened his accuracy, and been victimized by a lot of drops by his receivers.

"It's a multiplier. When you have receivers dropping balls and a quarterback that is inaccurate, you can go from pretty good to pretty terrible in a hurry," Schnellenberger said.

In his past two games, Smith is 25 of 68 with no touchdowns and four interceptions. That is a completion rate of 37.6 percent, compared with the 58.6 percent he had last season.

Smith said the problem began in the preseason, when both he and the team were showered with accolades coming off a season when they won the Sun Belt and New Orleans Bowl.

"And we were putting gasoline on that fire and it was getting bigger and getting bigger and bigger and maybe our confidence level was getting too high and we were getting borderline cocky," Smith said.

The humbling 37-3 loss to Minnesota on Sept. 20 seems to have had an effect on the team.

Smith promised more intense, uptempo practices, and the Owls did that while preparing to take on the Blue Raiders (1-3, 0-2 Sun Belt).

His receivers have not lost confidence in Smith.

"There is nothing the matter with our starting quarterback," tight end Jamari Grant said. "He had a bad game. Everyone has one. He is focused, the team is focused, and we'll be ready when we play Middle."

And Schnellenberger is not worried. "I have every confidence that he is going to return to his former level of play. I think he will surpass it through the balance of the season," Schnellenberger said.