DETROIT - Florida Atlantic has played eight seasons of major college football and already has a winning streak in bowl games.
Howard Schnellenberger’s championship experience must be rubbing off.
Rusty Smith threw for 307 yards and two second-half touchdowns to help the Owls beat Central Michigan 24-21 on Friday night in the Motor City Bowl.
Florida Atlantic began playing in the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2001 but has won both its postseason games. The Owls defeated Memphis last year in the New Orleans Bowl.
“Certainly, this is going to go down as the most meaningful game we’ve had,” said Schnellenberger, who coached Miami to the 1983 national title and was hired to start Florida Atlantic’s football program from scratch in 1998. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of our entire football team.”
The teams were tied 10-all midway through the third quarter when Smith hit Chris Bonner with a 52-yard scoring pass. Smith found Cortez Gent with an 18-yard strike early in the fourth to give the Owls (7-6) a bit of a cushion.
Making their third straight Motor City Bowl appearance, the Chippewas (8-5) cut the lead to 24-21 with 3 minutes to play when Dan LeFevour hit Antonio Brown with a touchdown pass and then Kito Poblah for a 2-point conversion. Gent recovered the ensuing onside kick, however.
Most of the 41,399 fans at Ford Field cheered the in-state Chippewas, but they were quiet as Florida Atlantic ran out the clock.
“We’ve played in a whole lot worse places than this — the Swamp, Clemson, Texas, Michigan State, Oklahoma,” Schnellenberger said.
It was the smallest turnout in the game’s 12-year history, yet Motor City Bowl chairman Ken Hoffman said the game will return to Ford Field in 2009 despite Detroit’s dismal economic forecast.
Smith, selected the game’s MVP, finished 20-for-35. Gent caught seven passes for 98 yards and Charles Pierre had 80 yards on the ground in a happy return to Michigan for Florida Atlantic, shut out at Michigan State on Sept. 13 during a game-long rainstorm.
Schnellenberger’s sport jacket was wet at the end of Friday night’s game, too, but only because his players doused him with a cooler as the final seconds ticked away.
The Owls began the season 1-5 but won five of their final six to become bowl-eligible.
“It’s a great way to go out,” linebacker Frantz Joseph said.
LeFevour was 28-for-40 for 253 yards with two touchdowns and a first-quarter interception that led to the Owls’ first touchdown. Central Michigan dropped its third straight.
Central Michigan trailed 17-13 late in the third quarter when Antonio Brown sprang loose for what would have been a 72-yard touchdown run, but Poblah’s facemask penalty negated it. The Chippewas were forced to punt a few plays later.
“I think that hurt us and took away some momentum as well,” coach Butch Jones said. “The disappointing thing is we felt like we left a lot of opportunities out there.”
The teams went to halftime tied at 10 after Florida Atlantic’s Ross Gornall kicked a 36-yard field goal in the final minute of the second quarter.
Dilvory Edgecomb scored on a 1-yard run in the first quarter for the Owls, but LeFevour answered in the second with a short touchdown pass to Poblah.
Brown caught 11 passes for 91 yards for Central Michigan, which topped Middle Tennessee in the 2006 Motor City Bowl and lost a 51-48 shootout to Purdue last season.
Chrysler LLC pulled out of its Motor City Bowl sponsorship commitment in early November, leaving Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. as the game’s major presenters. Organizers canceled the 2009 Detroit Indy Grand Prix two weeks ago because of a dearth of local sponsors.
The Motor City Bowl has a contract with ESPN through the 2013 season.
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