One bowl, one victory for FAU
NEW ORLEANS - Howard Schnellenberger's goal of bringing Florida Atlantic to national prominence is complete. Now it's time to set a new goal for his still very young football program.
No one could have imagined the heights Schnellenberger has reached in the eight years of FAU's football existence. The Owls (8-5) just moved up from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2005, and now they can call themselves bowl game champions after they defeated Memphis (7-6) in the New Orleans Bowl, 44-27.
The bowl was FAU's first in its short history, and there's a good possibility the Owls' first bowl berth could be its most memorable.
FAU put up 465 yards of total offense en route to victory. Much of that was because of the work of quarterback Rusty Smith.
Smith, who was named MVP, went 25 of 32 for 336 yards in the game. He threw a New Orleans Bowl-record five touchdown passes and only one interception.
"My goal for the whole year was to do my very best to help the team win," Smith said. "I think I did that tonight."
Memphis' offense was not disappointing in any way. It was just outperformed by FAU.
The Tigers posted 398 yards of offense and had 24 first downs compared to the Owls' 25.
"We knew both offenses were talented. We knew both offenses could score points," Memphis coach Tommy West said following the game.
Both offenses got off to extremely hot starts and scored touchdowns on their opening possessions.
FAU led 30-20 at halftime, and the turning point was when FAU blocked a Memphis punt that gave them field position inside the redzone in the third quarter.
At the time, Memphis had closed the lead to 30-27. Two plays after the blocked kicked, FAU pushed the lead back to double digits and never looked back.
"That kind of took the air out of us," West said. "And then we lost our quarterback. It was kind of downhill from there."
Memphis starter Martin Hankins went down with a leg injury late in the third quarter, and the Tigers' offense was never able to fully recover from the lost. Hankins left the game 281 passing yards and three touchdowns.
Whether Hankins' exit had a large affect on how FAU closed the game is debatable. What's not debatable is the fact that both programs could have a major impact on college football in the coming years and could very well meet again in this bowl next season.
Memphis has participated in the postseason four of the past five seasons. But FAU's quick rise to respectability is a tad more impressive.
"We have a strong squad," Schnellenberger said. "I think we can compete with [anyone in] America."
PLAYER OF THE GAME: FAU's Rusty Smith. The sophomore set passing records against Memphis but remained humble about his performance after the game, bringing his offensive line with him to postgame interviews.
PLAY OF THE GAME: Wilfred Rivera's blocked punt. The play gave the Owls excellent field position, set up a touchdown two plays later and took the air right out of the Tigers.
NOTES: Memphis' Joseph Ross had 133 yards of total offense, rushing 20 times for 91 yards and catching five passes for another 42 ... Schnellenberger is now 5-0 all time in bowl games ... Memphis wideout Jason Harmon was the game's leading receiver, catching seven balls for 97 yards.