New Orleans Bowl

In an appropriate ending to a storybook season, the FAU Owls made the final chapter a happy one with a 44-27 New Orleans Bowl victory over the Memphis Tigers.

The tale of 2007 began with an immediate triumph, as the Owls defeated last year’s conference co-champion Middle Tennessee on Sept. 1.

A misstep against Oklahoma State ensued before the Owls picked up their most noteworthy win ever, a 42-39 nail-biter against Minnesota. Then the Owls nearly upset the nationally ranked South Florida Bulls at a sold-out Lockhart Stadium.

For the last regular season game against Troy, the Owls went to Alabama with a chance to win the Sun Belt Conference and earn a trip to the New Orleans Bowl. The Owls jumped out to a 38-12 lead before the Trojans fought back to make it 38-32. The Owls defense held Troy in the final seconds, and FAU became the fastest team ever to make it to a bowl game.

At the bowl, Rusty Smith threw five touchdown passes, DiIvory Edgecomb accumulated 203 total yards, and the Owls won a bowl game in just their seventh season of existence.

After falling behind 30-13, the Memphis Tigers came roaring back to make the score 30-27 with 9:30 remaining in the third quarter.

After Memphis narrowed the deficit, courtesy of touchdown receptions by Earnest Williams and Carlos Singleton, the Owls stormed back.

“We thought we had momentum when we cut it to three. We thought we could win,” said Singleton.

After Wilfred Rivera blocked a punt to put things back in FAU’s favor, Smith did his best impersonation of Tom Brady, staying calm in the pocket and executing with deadly efficiency while completing 25 of 32 pass attempts. His lone mistake was an interception on an under-thrown ball at the end of the third quarter.

“The individual awards don’t matter,” said Smith after learning he had been voted the game’s MVP after throwing for 336 yards and setting New Orleans Bowl records for passing yards and TDs. “If I throw five interceptions and we win, it’s OK.”

When the Owls regained a commanding lead and then forced a Memphis punt with more than eight minutes left in the game, the Tigers faithful in the crowd – 25,146 – started heading for the exits.

Pinned at their own 4-yard line at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Smith led the Owls all the way down the field, mixing short and long passes in with powerful runs by Pierre and Rose that kept the winded Tigers defense gasping. Facing fourth-and-three at the Tigers 31-yard line and 10 minutes left in the game the Owls went for it and Smith found Lester Jean for the first down. Edgecomb ran it in for the score to finish the drive, effectively ending any hope of a Memphis comeback.

“They kept the faith and came together and now they can compete with anyone in the nation,” coach Howard Schnellenberger said.

After Edgecomb positioned them near midfield, the Owls marched to a game-opening score just 2:57 into the game.

“He did a great job returning those kickoffs. He did a great job all year and he did a great job tonight,” said Smith.

Memphis came back and immediately answered the score with one of their own. It took just seven plays and 2:43 for senior quarterback Martin Hanklin to lead the Tigers down the field and tie the game before being forced to leave with an injury.

Edgecomb bettered his first return with his second and raced 63 yards to the Memphis 25-yard line. The Owls couldn’t find the end zone and Warley Leroy made a 22-yard field goal to regain the lead, 10-7.

The next drive was the Owls’ most impressive. They went 74 yards on just four plays: two passes to Jean, a short run by Charles Pierre and a 29-yard TD pass to Edgecomb.

The Tigers offense surged in the second quarter thanks to a 41-yard catch by Carlos Singleton, but as Memphis neared the end zone, the FAU defense stiffened. Consecutive tackles for loss and a dropped pass held the Tigers to a field goal and made the score 24-13 at 5:55 of the second quarter.

In the end, the Owls fans who made the trip saw history made, and perhaps the birth of a dynasty.

“I was surprised to see such a large gathering for such a young team,” Schnellenberger said. “We are on a collision course with a national championship.”