One half to completing a perfect season was down. One half was left to secure a possible seed in the FCS Playoffs and a potential second round home game. Although the Wildcats had clinched at least a share of the MEAC title by halftime because South Carolina State thumped North Carolina A&T 48-3, they came out ready to show the 61, 712 fans in attendance and national television audience that they were as good as advertised, despite their strength of schedule.
And then it happened.
With 8:20 remaining in the 3rd quarter and the Cats driving to increase their 27-24 lead to ten points, MEAC Offensive Player of the Year Matt Johnson was sacked and fumbled. The ball was picked up by Marquiste Ramos and returned 44 yards to the Wildcat 22 yard line. In what looked like a routine play turned out to be anything but as minutes later it was confirmed that Johnson had suffered a severe shoulder injury and would not return to the game. From that point on, Bethune-Cookman and the infamous “Speedway O” was shut down by the defense of Florida A&M, only producing 114 total yards in the second half.
Johnson’s injury, in addition to the B-CU’s anemic offensive output in the second half all lead to the Wildcats suffering their first setback of the season at the hands of their arch rival Florida A&M University, 38-27 in the 31st edition of the Florida Classic. With the loss, the Wildcats will now share the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title with both the Rattlers and South Carolina State University, with all three teams finishing the regular season 7-1 in league play. The Wildcats have however, won the automatic berth to the NCAA FCS playoffs by virtue of the conference’s three-way tiebreaker system.
“I’m proud of these guys. For these guys to come in and do exactly what we’ve asked of them and the effort these kids have given. I can’t say it enough, I’m proud of these guys. I’m not happy about the loss but I can walk away with my head held high, B-CU head coach Brian Jenkins said.
“I told them there’s nothing for them to be sad about. We’re 10-1, and that’s a lot damn better than 1-10.”
After holding the Wildcats offense to a three and out, FAMU “struck” early. On their first offensive play from scrimmage, redshirt freshman Austin Trainor threw a 47 yard flea flicker pass to wide receiver Kevin Elliot to give the Rattlers first and goal from the B-CU nine yard line. One play later, runningback Phillip Sylvester took a handoff and walked into the endzone untouched to give the Rattlers an early 7-0 lead with 13:28 remaining in the first quarter.
It wouldn’t take the Cats long to answer. On their 3rd possession, sophomore Jackie Wilson entered the game and threw a 36 yard pass to Jevaughn Reams to give the Wildcats first and ten at the FAMU one yard line. Four plays later, runningback Johnathan Moment plunged in from one yard out to potentially knot things up at seven apiece, but a missed extra point by placekicker Cory Kowalski brought the Cats to 7-6 deficit with 4:56 remaining in the first period.
FAMU would respond 1:24 later going 60 yards on eight plays culminated by a ten yard touchdown pass from Trainor to T.J. Lawrence to give the Rattlers a 14-6 lead with 3:34 remaining in the quarter.
The game would continue in see saw fashion as early in the second quarter Matt Johnson found Reams again on a similar post pattern as the one in this first quarter, this one for 34 yards to give the Cats first and goal from the FAMU 3. Three plays later on 4th and goal from the one yard line, runningback Androse Bell dove in from a yard for a Wildcat score. After another failed PAT attempt by Kowalski, the Cats deficit was sliced to 14-12 with 12:58 remaining in the first half.
The Wildcats would take their first lead of the game with 4:56 remaining in the half after Johnson engineered a 10 play, 66 yard drive, culminated by a three yard run by Isidore Jackson. Jackson became the third different runningback to score a rushing TD in the game with the three yard plunge. Kowalski’s PAT was successful this time, much to the delight of the B-CU faithful in attendance, giving the Cats a 19-14 advantage.
The “Speedway O” would attempt to put the proverbial nail in the coffin over the next two minutes. Using their fastbreak offense, the Cats drove 60 yards on eight plays, capped by a 35 yard strike from Johnson to Eddie Poole, breaking two tackles before diving in the endzone for the Wildcat score. B-CU’s two point conversion attempt was good, giving the Wildcats a commanding 27-14 lead with 1:33 remaining before halftime.
To say the second half was totally dominated by Phillip Sylvester and the FAMU offense would be putting it mildly. The Rattlers came out of the lockerroom and outscored the Wildcats 24-0 and outgained them 252-114. On the Rattlers first drive of the second half they drove 54 yards in 2:54 on 12 plays cutting the Wildcat lead to 27-17 on a 31 yard field goal by Trevor Scott with 11:58 remaining in the 3rd. FAMU would then catch a break on the Wildcats ensuing possession. Linebacker Demarius Folsom stripped the ball away from Moment and the ball was recovered by the Rattlers at the Cats 46 yard line. Sylvester would then take over carrying the ball four times for 46 yards, capped by a 14 yard scamper to cut the Cats lead to 27-24 with 9:23 remaining in the 3rd. The Rattlers had run off 10 straight points in 2:35 and it seemed as if the momentum was shifting back in the favor of the Tallahassee based land grant institution.
On B-CU’s ensuing possession, Johnson’s injury occurred three plays later, significantly ending any chances of a Wildcat victory.
Leading the Wildcats was Johnson, who has probably played his last game as a B-CU quarterback, with 209 yards on 11-16 passing and a TD. B-CU game most valuable player Eddie Poole led all receivers with six catches for 112 yards and a score. Defensively, the ‘Cats were paced by Reggie Sandilands and Michael Williams with seven tackles. Williams also had two interceptions and a pass break up.
The Rattlers were paced by Sylvester, who ran for 146 yards on 22 carries and three scores. With today’s output, the Marianna, FL native has rushed for six straight games of 100 yards or more, all of which have been FAMU victories. Trainor led FAMU through the air going 19-38 for 261 yards and a touchdown pass. Defensively, the Rattlers were led by Willie Ferrell with a game high 10 total tackles (one for loss) and Qier Hall with five solo tackles.
The Cats will now turn their attention to the FCS Playoff Selection show scheduled for tomorrow at 10 AM on ESPNU. At that time, B-CU will find out where their playoff fate will lie. The team will get together in the morning for a playoff watch party and head coach Brian Jenkins will hold a press conference tomorrow afternoon in Daytona Beach. As for the Rattlers, although a long shot, they are still holding out hope that they will receive an at-large into the FCS playoffs as well.
“We beat the #7 team in the nation today and we’re riding a six game winning streak, FAMU head coach Joe Taylor said. We feel we deserve to be there.”