Being in playoffs is the right spot for streaking Rattlers

Receiver Xavier Smith (center) is celebrated by some of his FAMU teammates after scoring a touchdown for the Rattlers.
Photo by Devin Grimes
St. Claire Murraine

ORLANDO – A little more than three months ago, the Rattlers made their debut in the SWAC in inclement weather. Rain again threatened just hours before they ended the regular season in the Florida Classic.

There was plenty on the line in both games, too.

In the season opener against Jackson State, the Rattlers were hoping for a win to get a leg up in the East Division standings in the SWAC. In last Saturday’s game at Camping World Stadium, their postseason hopes depended on a win.

It had to be one that was very convincing, too. FAMU didn’t disappoint.

The FAMU fans in the crowd of 54,198 loved every minute of it and they left Orlando believing that the Rattlers weren’t done playing football.

Fewer than 24 hours after the lopsided 46-21 victory, a selection committee decided that FAMU deserved an at-large berth into the playoffs. The Rattlers will travel to Hammond, La., for a first-round game against Southeastern Louisiana (8-3).

It marks the first time that a SWAC team is in the playoffs and the first trip into the postseason for FAMU since 2001.

A 30-point third quarter took whatever fight the Wildcats had out of them. Two fumbles and an interception accounted for 18 of those points.

It all happened in a span of one minute and 27 seconds. If this one were a heavyweight fight the referee would have declared a technical knockout.

BJ Bohler got it going when he recovered a Dylaan Lee fumble and took it back 56 yards for the score. On the ensuing B-CU possession, Markquese Bell intercepted quarterback Shannon Patrick at his own 38 yard line. Bishop Bonnett scored on the first play.

Bell was again involved in another take away when he forced a fumble that defensive lineman Gentle Hunt managed to carry 46 yards into the end zone.

Bohler was named MVP. In addition to the interception, he broke up a pass and finished the evening with four tackles, two behind of Bell.

It was a homecoming for Bohler and a sense of relief for Bonnett, who has been a part of the team six of the previous  eight times that the Wildcats beat the Rattlers.

Relieved? Indeed he was.

“To come out and win is a great feeling,” said Bonnett, who finished the game with 128 yards on 19 carries. “This is my last year here so you know it’s bitter-sweet.”

Wildcats head coach Terry Sims lamented over his team’s costly errors at the end. Never mind that the Wildcats didn’t stop fighting. They scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to go with one they scored within a minute of the kickoff.

That seemingly inspired FAMU’s offense, which produced 478 yards, most of it on the ground. Quarterback Rasean McKay accounted for the rest in his 17 completions in 25 attempts.

Xavier Smith, who had a touchdown catch, finished with 128 yards to lead the six receivers that McKay connected with.

Coach Willie Simmons had seen the defensive prowess of his FAMU team all season and expected all that the unit did to the Wildcats.

He just wasn’t sure that the selection committee was watching as his team went on an eight-game winning streak to finish the season in the FCS national rankings with a 9-2 overall record.

“If the playoff committee doesn’t feel that we are one of the top teams in America, then we really need to look at the system and figure out what’s wrong with it,” Simmons said after the win. “It’s obviously broken if we don’t get in.”

Yet, he sounded like a man who was getting ready for a playoff game after the Rattlers 24-hour celebration ritual was over.

 Bethune-Cookman came in with a 2-8 record, but was far from being an underdog. For nine previous years – not including last year when the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the season for both programs – the Wildcats came away victorious.

It intensified the rivalry, especially as the Wildcats came into the game with two consecutive conference victories. Tension was higher for the Rattlers this time around. They needed the convincing win, which assured them of hearing their name called Sunday.

The biggest question that was before the selection committee was how do you keep a team that has just a one-point loss to a FCS opponent out of the playoffs. 

The committee answered correctly by matching the Rattlers up with the Lions from the Southland Conference.

Of all that was on Simmons’ mind going into the game, making the playoff was only one of them. Snapping the Wildcats’ streak was right up there, too.

“We knew we had to win the game for multiple reasons, but foremost we had to get this monkey off our backs,” Simmons said. “I feel like I’m 50 pounds lighter because of this win.”