Bethune-Cookman won its ninth straight game over arch-rival Florida A&M Saturday afternoon, holding off the 13th-ranked Rattlers 31-27 in front of a crowd of 55,730 at Camping World Stadium in the 40th edition of the Florida Blue Florida Classic.
With the win, the Wildcats improved to 7-4 on the year, including a 5-3 mark in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play. The loss marked the Rattlers’ only defeat in MEAC play this season and dropped FAMU to 9-2 overall on the year. The crowd was the largest for a Florida Blue Florida Classic since 2011.
“These guys have had some real, real serious adversity the last three weeks,” Bethune-Cookman head coach Terry Sims said following the victory. “We’ve lost some games that we felt like we should not have dropped but they didn’t quit. They kept practicing hard. They kept preparing. And, you know, I think anyone that watched that game tonight, they saw “bend but don’t break” with all three phases of the game. And our guys just continued to play.”
The Wildcats opened the game with a 15-play, 72-yard drive that drained 8:23 off the clock, but quarterback Akevious Williams was stopped at the FAMU 4 on fourth-and-goal from the Rattlers’ 5, handing the ball over to A&M.
The Wildcats defense responded, however, intercepting Rattlers quarterback Ryan Stanley on the third play of the ensuing possession. Trevor Merritt then took the interception return 23 yards to paydirt to give Bethune-Cookman a 7-0 lead with 7:18 left in the first.
“If anyone has watched this young man play football this year, that’s what he does,” Sims said. “That’s what he did last year. He intercepts balls and he runs them back for touchdowns. That’s just a knack he has.”
On the following FAMU drive, Stanley guided the Rattlers 76 yards on nine plays and knotted the score at 7 -7 with a 12-yard pass to Marcus Williams. But Bethune-Cookman bounced back again, as Williams scored from 14 yards out on a fourth-down run with 12:11 left in the second.
Following a blocked field goal by Gerome Howard, Bethune-Cookman charged down the field once more, covering 80 yards in four plays — a drive that included a 58-yard completion from Williams to Marcus Riley and a 28-yard touchdown pass from Williams to Steffon Francis — to put the ‘Cats up 21-7.
The two-touchdown cushion was short-lived, though, as Marcus Williams returned a B-CU kickoff to the 43-yard line, Davonne Kendrick picked up four yards on the ground and Stanley hit Xavier Smith and David Manigo for gains of 25 and 28 yards, respectively, to cut the lead to 21-13.
The teams then traded punts before Bethune-Cookman ran out the clock and took an eight-point edge into the locker room at halftime.
After the half, Florida A&M’s defense struck quickly, as Eric Smith picked off Williams and returned the ball 29 yards to the B-CU 20 with 12:48 left in the third. A 10-yard Stanley run and back-to-back carries by Bishop Bonnett and Terrel Jennings brought the ball down to the B-CU 2.
Then on fourth-and-goal, Azende Rey changed directions in the backfield and outran the Wildcats defense to the pylon to cut the Bethune-Cookman lead to 21-20 with 10:33 remaining in the quarter.
Later in the third, Marquis Hendrix stripped the quarterback Stanley, and linebacker Devin James recovered the ball and returned it 25 yards before stepping out of bounds the 11-yard line.
Four plays later, Jonathan Thomas connected on a 25-yard field goal to put the Wildcats up 24-20. But FAMU immediately drove 58 yards on eight plays over 3:12 and took its first lead of the game, 27-24, on a 4-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass from Stanley to Rey with 11:01 remaining.
Later in the fourth, Bethune-Cookman found itself at the FAMU 18 with a chance to tie, but Thomas missed a field goal attempt from 35 yards out. Following a Rattlers three-and-out, the Wildcats took over at their own 31, then drove 69 yards in nine plays, capping off the possession with a 15-yard touchdown run by Isaac Washington to put B-CU up 31-27.
Four plays later, James picked off Stanley at the Bethune-Cookman 47, sealing the victory for the Wildcats. Under head coach Terry Sims, Bethune-Cookman is 25-0 when leading at halftime.
“I just wanted to get the ball to my family,” James said of the pick. “I’ve always dreamed of that, throwing the ball in the crowd. I see people do on TV all the time. But, yeah, I just got to give that to the D-line. They got a great rush on the quarterback, and they didn’t know where to throw it. And, Ryan, a great quarterback, was just scrambling. He just threw it up in the air. I just got lucky.”
Bethune-Cookman tied a season high with 467 total yards on the and had a season-best 10 conversions on 17 third-down attempts. Williams finished with 269 passing yards on 22-of-35 passing with one touchdown, and also added 21 yards and a score on the ground. Washington carried the ball 12 times for 104 yards and a score, and Riley caught seven passes for 98 yards to lead all receivers.
Defensively, Hendrix had 11 tackles to lead the Wildcats, who held Florida A&M to 4-of-13 on third down for the game. On the FAMU sideline, Stanley finished the night 19-of-32 passing with 213 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, a total that included seven completions to Smith for 86 yards. Markquese Bell had 12 tackles and Elijah Richardson had nine tackles and a sack to lead the Rattlers.
“It definitely hurts,” Florida A&M head coach Willie Simmons said of the loss. “The immediate impact of it hurts. But once tomorrow comes and the sun shines again, we’ll look back and reflect and we’ll realize that we’ve done some great things this year and these guys have really done a phenomenal job. And I think that’s understated as to what they have been able to accomplish and the pride, the excitement, that they brought back to Rattler Nation.”