The Rattlers will slither into the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium for the first time ever to kick off the 2004 football season at 5 p.m. central time Saturday.
FAMU is coming off of a .500 season in 2003 in which they went 6-6. The Illini were a dismal 1-10 (0-8) last season with their lone win against the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division 1-AA Illinois State (49-22) Sept. 6.
Illinois will be the first of four Division 1-A opponents the Rattlers will face this season, a list that also includes Temple, Tulane and Virginia Tech.
Head Coach Billy Joe said the team’s primary goal is to go up to Champaign, Ill., and win a game.
However, Joe recognizes what the Rattlers are up against. Illinois is a Division I-A team that plays in the toughest conference in all of college football, the Big 10. The Big 10 includes such storied programs as Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.
Joe knows that it will take a nearly flawless performance for his team to come out on top. But the winningest coach in the history of Division I-AA with 234 wins is still optimistic about his team’s chances.
“We cannot do anything to hurt ourselves. We cannot fumble, get the ball intercepted, miss blocks or get infractions,” he said. “We have to play good, solid, fundamentally sound unadulterated Rattler football.”
On offense, the Rattlers will start returning senior Ben Dougherty as quarterback. The 6’4, 215-pound transfer from Northern Iowa Community College started 10 of 12 games and threw for 2,502 yards last season, including 13 touchdowns. The Rattlers will attempt to expose the U. of I 4-3 defense by exploiting mismatches created by their four wide receiver offense.
“We should have the advantage when their safeties cover our receivers.” Dougherty said.
Dougherty will be without the services of one of his main targets, wide receiver Rod Miller. Miller, a Sarasota native, was suspended by the NCAA, along with fellow senior defensive back Edward Kwaku, offensive lineman Fletcher Williams and defensive lineman John Edwards, for not satisfying NCAA annual credit completion requirements.
Miller will have to sit out the first six games, and Williams will have to sit out the first five. Edwards and Kwaku will be available for the Atlanta Football Classic versus Tennessee State on September 25.
Billy Joe fully supports his suspended players, but also said he would not allow this unfortunate set of circumstances to make his team crumble. Joe said that he is trying to get his team to understand that they shouldn’t worry about things they can’t control.
“We have to let everything outside of football go,” said defensive back Devvin Richardson.
Richardson, along with sophomore safety Cardan Alexander, switched to the defensive side of the ball after playing offense last year. Richardson said he uses his knowledge of more complex offensive sets to teach his teammates on defense how to read plays better, especially in run situations.
“I tell my teammates on defense to check the pressure of the O line’s knuckles, to see whether his weight is up or just to help them with their read and recognition.”
Illinois’ offense averaged 340 yards of total offense last season, including 110 yards on the ground. The Rattlers plan to use a total team effort on defense to stop the Illini attack.
Senior defensive end Jeff Green said that teams are going to try to run on them until they show that they can stop the run.
“We have to have 11 hats surrounding the ball at all time,” Green said. “You have to swarm on defense.”
The 70,000 plus fans at Illinois should not affect the Rattlers ability to execute Saturday. Dougherty said transfer Josh Driscoll shared what the experience will be like with him. Driscoll played in Champaign during his days at Arkansas State.
“After playing in the Swamp (The University of Florida’s home field) where the fans are right on top of you,” said guard Terrel Baldwin. “It ain’t really nothing to me.
All in all, the odds will definitely be stacked against the Rattlers and a win would be monumental.
“If we win any of these Division I-A games, we should get a cal l from the president,” Joe said.
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