BOCA RATON, Fla. – This is no doubt what Howard Schnellenberger envisioned when he dreamed of Florida Atlantic one day having a football team and, in time, its own stadium.
Schnellenberger steered the Owls in their infancy, leading FAU to the team's first 58 wins and a pair of bowl victories in consecutive seasons during his 11-year tenure at the Boca Raton school.
The retired coach must be smoking his pipe with glee after what the Owls accomplished Saturday night on the field named for him.
Under Lane Kiffin, the fourth full-time head coach in FAU history, the Owls defeated rival Florida International 52-24 to clinch their first Conference USA East Division title and earn the right to host the league's championship game Dec. 2. It was FAU's seventh consecutive win after a 1-3 start.
For Kiffin, the win is vindication for the exiled Southern California coach who questioned his decision to make Boca Raton his home. Naysayers or not, Kiffin has made an immediate stamp on the program, which endured three straight three-win seasons before his arrival.
"It's like a child that comes from nothing, doesn't have anything. You know, you give them something, they appreciate it a lot differently than the ones that are used to it," Kiffin said. "It's been unbelievable, but we've got a long way to go."
FAU (8-3, 7-0 C-USA) scored on its opening drive when quarterback Jason Driskel connected with Harrison Bryant on a 13-yard touchdown pass to give the Owls a 7-0 lead. FIU turned the ball over on a failed fourth-down pass, but the Owls failed to capitalize as Greg Joseph's 52-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide left.
FIU (6-4, 4-3) punted on its next possession, and FAU's Devin Singletary broke loose on a career-long 70-yard touchdown run five plays later to put the Owls ahead 14-0. With that score, the sophomore running back broke the school's single-season rushing record previously held by Alfred Morris, now with the NFL's Dallas Cowboys.
The Panthers got on the board in the second quarter after a Driskel sack forced FAU to punt the ball away. FIU quarterback Alex McGough then orchestrated an eight-play, 72-yard drive culminating with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Darrius Scott that cut FAU's lead to 14-7.
On FAU's next possession, Driskel's pass was intercepted, giving the Panthers the ball on FAU's 27-yard line. But FAU's defense held the Panthers to a 31-yard field goal.
Just when it seemed FIU had stolen the momentum at FAU Stadium, Driskel found D'Anfe McGriff in the end zone on a 6-yard touchdown pass with 27 seconds left before halftime to give the Owls a 21-10 lead.
The Owls got the ball back after the break and scored on a 79-yard bomb from Driskel to Kalib Woods, putting FAU ahead 27-10.
FIU didn't fold, driving 75 yards in seven plays -- culminating with a 14-yard rushing touchdown by Alex Gardner -- on the next possession. Driskel finished the night 18 of 25 for four touchdowns. He connected with Woods again on a 7-yard toss in the third quarter to make it 34-17.
Woods was the MVP for the Owls, catching seven passes for 172 yards to go with his pair of touchdowns. He also caught a 2-point conversion after Singletary's second touchdown -- a 3-yard score -- in the fourth quarter.
Singletary ended his night with 164 rushing yards, bringing his total to 1,524 for the season.
FIU's McGough was 20 of 32 for two touchdowns, but he was also sacked four times.
The Owls avenged last season's 33-31 loss in the "Shula Bowl," improving their record to 11-5 against FIU.