Following two disappointing losses to close out the regular season, Central Michigan has one more chance to end 2008 on a positive note.
The Chippewas hope to accomplish that as they match up against legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger and Florida Atlantic in the 12th edition of the Motor City Bowl on Dec. 26 at Detroit’s Ford Field.
Central Michigan (8-4) is coming off a fourth straight winning campaign, while earning its fifth overall postseason berth at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
This is also the Chippewas’ third straight Motor City Bowl invitation. In their first year under Butch Jones in 2007, they fell 51-48 on a last-second field goal to Purdue on Dec. 26, 2007, at Ford Field, dropping to 1-3 all-time in bowl games.
But prior to accepting its 2008 bid, Central Michigan endured a bit of adversity. Its two-year reign atop the West Division of the Mid-American Conference was effectively ended with a 31-24 home loss to then-No. 14 Ball State on Nov. 19, and the Chippewas were upset 56-52 at Eastern Michigan nine days later.
The Chippewas must now try to prevent their first three-game slide since Oct. 9-23, 2004. If they do, they’ll send the program to its second 10-win season in three years.
Florida Atlantic (6-6), meanwhile, suffered a brutal start before claiming its bowl berth. The Owls averaged 35.0 points while winning five of their final six games to overcome a 1-5 start, and became bowl-eligible with a 57-50 overtime win over Florida International on Nov. 29.
Considering the last Motor City Bowl and each team’s most recent contest, it’s possible the 2008 matchup could be another shootout.
“If you had told me, with all my years in this sport, that you’d have a game that was 50-50 after 60 minutes, I wouldn’t have thought it was possible,” Schnellenberger said. “But it happened, and we’re going to have to come up with a pretty good defensive plan to keep Central Michigan from putting up a score like that. We’re pretty good at catching up, but we’ve got to stay in catch-up range.”
To do that, Schnellenberger’s Owls will have to contain an offense that ranks 24th in the FBS with 427.1 yards per game. That unit is led by quarterback Dan LeFevour, who finished third in the Mid-American Conference with 253.1 passing yards per game.
LeFevour—a three-time all-MAC selection and 2006 Motor City Bowl MVP—had a bit of a down year, throwing for just 2,531 yards and 19 touchdowns. In his previous two seasons, he amassed at least 3,000 passing yards and 26 TDs en route to leading the Chippewas to consecutive MAC championships. Still, he finished as their leading rusher in 2008 with 536 yards and six scores.
LeFevour’s top target was sophomore wide receiver Antonio Brown, who caught a team-leading 82 passes for 906 yards and six touchdowns.
Brown also became Central Michigan’s first recipient of the MAC’s best special-teams player award. He leads the FBS in punt return yardage, averaging 20.7 on 18 returns.
While Central Michigan’s football history dates back to 1896, Schnellenberger has been with Florida Atlantic since its decision to field a football team in 1998. The 74-year-old Schnellenberger, who won a national title with Miami in 1983 after defeating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, has seen the program make huge strides in just their fourth year as a FBS member.
After winning the Sun Belt Conference last year, he won his first bowl game with the Owls—a 44-27 victory against Memphis in the R+L Carrier’s New Orleans Bowl last Dec. 21 at the Superdome. Schnellenberger is 5-0 all-time in bowl games, winning two each with Miami and Louisville.
But he’s just as thrilled to have the Owls in another postseason matchup.
“It is a great feeling for us to be invited to play in the Motor City Bowl, and a personal thrill for me to be taking FAU to Detroit,” Schnellenberger said. “For us to become bowl eligible and to be invited again following our first bowl game last year gives this program tremendous promise.”
Florida Atlantic boasts a top defensive presence in senior linebacker Frantz Joseph, the nation’s second-best tackler with 141 to lead the Sun Belt in that category for a second straight season. He also earned all-conference honors while breaking his own school record for tackles in a season. Joseph also set the school’s single-game (16) and career (333) tackle mark.
The Owls’ offense is directed by junior quarterback Rusty Smith, who led the Sun Belt with 2,918 yards and 22 touchdowns. His favorite target was Cortez Gent, who finished with 837 receiving yards and eight TDs.
Senior Charles Pierre led the ground game with a career-high 937 yards and eight touchdowns for the Owls.