BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
When the FAU Owls open up their 2009 season Saturday in Lincoln against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, QB Rusty Smith will try to do what Jim Kelly did on Nov 3, 1979.
He'll try to defeat a national power on the road in hostile territory. Kelly (6-3, 217) pulled the trick when he defeated the Penn State Nittany Lions 26-10. For Kelly, it was an opportunity to show Nittany Lions Coach Joe Paterno that he should have offered him a scholarship to play quarterback and not linebacker.
While Coach Howard Schnellenberger compares the skill level of Smith to Bernie Kosar because the two signal callers are intelligent, similar in size and delivery, that's where the comparisons end. Even though Kosar led Schnellenberger to his lone national title in 1983, it was Kelly who put the Hurricanes football program on the map and took the Miami football into national prominence with this historic win in Pennsylvania.
Kelly amassed 5,233 yards and threw for 32 touchdowns. If he didn't sustain a season ending shoulder injury in 1982 against Virginia Tech, who knows what his final statistics would have been.
But like Kelly nearly 30 years ago, Smith represents the latest star pupil for his 75-year old coach. These two quarterbacks are both program builders.
It was Smith who sent Schnellenberger out a winner in his mentors final game at the Orange Bowl on Nov 24, 2007 by blasting the Florida International University Golden Panthers 55-23. This victory led to a season ending three-game winning streak which was culminated by a 44-27 win over the Memphis Tigers Dec 21, 2007 in the New Orleans Bowl in FAU's first-postseason appearance.
FAU's second bowl victory occurred in Detroit as the Owls defeated Central Michigan 24-21 at Ford Field on Dec 26, 2008 in the Motor City Bowl lifting Schnellenberger's bowl record to 6-0. He is 2-0 with Smith at the helm and 1-0 with Kelly as the Hurricanes defeated Virginia Tech 20-10 in the 1981 Peach Bowl.
Before the Penn State game, Schnellenberger used his past experiences in the NFL with the Baltimore Colts to dictate when he wanted Kelly to see his first real game action.
"It was my feeling that I didn't want to start Jim Kelly's record prior to the time that our offensive football team had to learn the offense and have enough practice where he had a legitimate chance to win, " Schnellenberger said. We had a good spread out mobile quarterback named Mike Rodrigue and I let him take the first seven games and we were 3-4. We had beaten some minor teams and got killed by the better ones. But the time eventually came and in the eighth game at Penn State and I kept it a secret from the team, from my coaching staff, my wife Beverlee that I was going to start him in that game.
"I didn't in fact tell him until the pre-game meal which was four hours before kickoff that he was going to start the game and the game was going to be his. We started the game with a conservative game plan and threw 20 times and completed two thirds of those and two were for touchdowns. Low and behold, we had a win against mighty Penn State in State College in Happy Valley. Jim went on to go 2-2 his first year following losses to Alabama and Notre Dame but with a season ending victory over Florida in Charley Pell's first year.
"But this sent a message that Jim Kelly was going to be the quarterback of the future and that we can win a lot of football games with him at the helm. I praise my good Lord it was a rainy, windy day and the underdog had a better chance to win. We finished 5-6 in that first year and the win over Penn State certainly gave us great hope for the coming years."
Schnellenberger compared Kelly and Smith as,"very similar and Jim is bigger strong guy with a strong arm. He's less escapable than Rusty but can get out of the pocket and run with it. The only time I remember him escaping was when he got hurt against Virginia Tech in 1982. They tackled him outside, when he was running outside they chased down and someone fell on top of him and separated his shoulder and knocked him out the rest of his senior year. Rusty is faster and we'll see how Rusty measures up to Jim in the next 5-7 years."
When I talked to Schnellenberger about these two quarterbacks and put him on the spot about which one did more for his respective program, this is one time it was tough for him to go out on the limb. But he acknowledged that Smith has done wonders for FAU's football program.
"Rusty has been with us since the time we've been in the Sun Belt Conference, has taken us from a dormant to a champion and has led us to two bowl wins, " Schnellenberger added. "Now he looks in his senior year to have a chance to beat Nebraska, South Carolina, our conference schedule along with Wyoming. The first game against Nebraska we'll be prohibitive underdogs, yet we have an outside chance to get ahead at games end. If that would happen then of course he would be immortalized here in the State of Florida. "
If the Information Management Major doesn't win against the Cornhuskers then I'm sure if Smith uses his information management of game film and the playbook to keep this game competitive, Schnellenberger would be pleased with that outcome.
It happened before that a South Florida based football team played a national power and emerged when Schnellenberger was 45-years old so anything is possible nearly 30 years later.
Going into this season, Smith, 6-5, 230, has appeared in 38 games, has thrown for 62 touchdowns and amassed 8,197 yards. Reaching 10-11,000 career yards with an outstanding season and many offensive weapons is attainable.
But one thing is for certain, Kelly and Smith have built these programs in their own way and while Kelly never was able to get an on campus stadium built, his bust hangs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, while Smith has an excellent chance to be the first player in Owls history to be drafted in the NFL and the major reason there will be an on campus stadium set to open in 2011.
So let the comparisons between Kelly and Smith continue.
Scott Morganroth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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