Florida A&M’s football program has a very decorated trophy case. From an FCS national title (1978) to 14 HBCU championships the Rattlers are one of the more storied programs out there. On Saturday, though, they added something new to that display case; a Celebration Bowl crown. FAMU wrapped up a season to remember with its 12th win of the year; a ____ over MEAC champion Howard in Atlanta.
Things looked dicey right off the bat, however, for Florida A&M. Howard return ace Ian Wheeler broke free for a big 63-yard return on the opening kickoff and set up the Bison offense well within enemy territory. Jarett Hunter rumbled in for an eight-yard touchdown and gave Howard an early 7-0 lead.
Shortly after that, the Bison defense made a big play to get the ball back. Linebacker Christian White flew through the line and blasted FAMU signal-caller Jeremy Moussa, causing a fumble. Carson Hinton picked it up and suddenly Howard had all the momentum in the early going. Aided by a facemask penalty that negated a fumble of their own, the Bison tacked on seven more. Kasey Hawthorne ran in from three yards out and made it a two-score game with not even five minutes gone in the first quarter.
Florida A&M needed a way to stop the bleeding and thought they got the answer they were looking for on the next series. Tight end Kamari Young caught a pass as sprinted 44 yards through the Howard defense to get into the red zone. The Bison defense, however, made a tremendous fourth down stand to turn it over again.
The Rattlers finally got on the board early in the second quarter when Moussa connected with receiver Jah’Marae Sheread for a one-yard touchdown. After forcing a punt on defense, FAMU began to build momentum. That momentum, however, was quickly squashed by Howard defensive lineman Darrian Brokenburr. Brokenburr fought off his block and drug Moussa down in the end zone for a safety.
Trailing 16-10 to start the second half, Florida A&M still struggled to find its footing. Moussa floated a pass incomplete on third and long and the Rattlers were forced to punt again. The two defenses rose up and made stop after stop. When the third quarter came to a close, FAMU still found itself behind by six.
Moussa and company finally took their first lead of the day and changed the momentum early in the fourth quarter. Running back Kelvin Dean slipped into the Howard secondary and hauled in a perfect pass from Moussa while tumbling backward into the end zone much to the delight of the FAMU faithful that make the trek from Tallahassee.
The Bison, now behind for the first time all day, started to see the wheels come off. Quarterback Quinton Williams and the offense couldn’t move the chains and Howard quickly had to punt back.
It didn’t take Dean long to do it again. Moussa dropped back on the third play of the drive and aired a pass out to the senior running back. Dean brought it in and sprinted down the sideline untouched to extend Florida A&M’s lead to 24-16 with under 11 minutes to play. The heat was on for Howard who hadn’t scored an offensive point since the first quarter.
The Bison tacked on a field goal with 7:55 remaining from kicker Aaron Bickerton but still trailed by five. It was after the field goal, though, that Howard would get its biggest play of the day. Moussa looked for a bubble pass on the outside but DB Carson Hinton jumped the route and trotted into the end zone to give the Bison the lead back.
Moussa responded quickly from his big mistake. From 38 yards out he took pitch back on a flea-flicker play and unloaded a deep pass to Sheread for thee electrifying touchdown. The two-point try, however failed, and the score was 30-26 in favor of FAMU with 5:46 left. The ugly part of the series, however, resulted in center TJ Lee being ejected for spitting at an opponent.
Time was now a factor for the Bison but they got a big boost from Wheeler who again jutted out on a nice return to set the offense up near midfield. That spark was quickly snuffed out, though, when Williams floated a pass too high for his intended target and Florida A&M DB Kendall Bohler jumped up and came down with it.
The Rattlers were not able to bleed out the rest of the clock, though, and relied on their defense to close it out with 1:50 left. The D only needed one play to seal it. SWAC Defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Major picked off Williams one last time and the celebration was on.
Florida A&M will end its season at 12-1 and has its first HBCU national title since 2001 and the first for head coach Willie Simmons. Moussa ended up throwing for 259 yards and three touchdowns on the day. Dean was on the receiving end of two of them. While the Rattlers only rushed for 78 yards, they did manage to take the ball away three times.
For Howard, Williams wrapped up his day with 103 yards on 14 completed passes but he also had three interceptions. Eden James led the rushers with 55 yards. The Bison defense forced three turnovers of their own but it wasn’t enough.