On the road again

photo by Jose Lopez, Jr.

After joining the ranks of the college football elite with a 21-13 win over then-No. 5 West Virginia last weekend, No. 6 USF (4-0, 1-0 Big East) will play its first-ever road game as a ranked team on Saturday, when it travels to Boca Raton to take on Florida Atlantic at 3:30 p.m.

The game ­- which will be broadcast on ESPN-U – marks the first meeting between the teams since 2001, when USF defeated the Owls 51-10 at Raymond James Stadium.

Florida Atlantic – which started the 2006 season with a 0-4 record – has had success early this year. Through five games, the Owls are posting a 3-2 record, including a 42-39 win over Minnesota, and are undefeated in the Sun Belt Conference (2-0).

The Owls have an experienced coaching staff, starting with head coach Howard Schnellenberger. Schnellenberger is often credited with bringing the University of Miami to prominence as a head coach for the Hurricanes in the early 1980s. In five seasons at Miami, Schnellenberger helped the Hurricanes win 72 percent of their games, including a 31-30 win over Nebraska in the 1983 national championship game. In seven seasons at Florida Atlantic, Schnellenberger has helped the Owls to a 36-39 record, including an 11-3 mark during the 2003 season.

“I have great respect for Coach Schnellenberger,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “He’s one of the great coaches in the history of football, we all know that. Some of the things he’s done in his life and his tenure and his career are remarkable.”

Despite defeating two ranked teams and posting a 4-0 record this season, the Bulls know they cannot overlook the Owls, who are facing their second ranked team in as many weeks after suffering a 45-17 loss to No. 8 Kentucky on Saturday.

“I’ve been very impressed with them all the way through,” Leavitt said. “(Florida Atlantic) is a very good football team, and it’s going to be a very difficult challenge for us.”

The main area of concern for the Bulls will be Florida Atlantic’s offense.

Led by redshirt sophomore Rusty Smith, the Owls are averaging 24 points this season, third best in the conference. The 6-foot-5, 212-pound quarterback has thrown for 1,289 yards and nine touchdowns and had only two interceptions this season.

“I’m very impressed with their quarterback,” Leavitt said. “He is precise, moves well and has a tremendous arm.”

Helping Smith in the backfield for the Owls will be running back Charles Pierre. The redshirt junior has amassed 272 yards and four touchdowns this season, finding the end zone in all but the team’s game against Oklahoma State.

On offense, Bulls quarterback Matt Grothe will have to contend with Florida Atlantic defensive back Tavious Polo. Polo is leading the nation with seven interceptions and had an impressive three-pick performance in the Owls’ win over Minnesota.

In addition to Polo, the Bulls offense will have to contain linebacker Frantz Joseph, who leads the Owls with 49 tackles and four tackles for a loss this