Redshirt junior quarterback Albert Chester II had been waiting all season for his breakout game to come.
Chester got just that in the Florida A&M University Rattlers’ (7-4 overall, 5-3 MEAC) 35-21 triumph over the Bethune-Cookman College Wildcats (5-6 overall, 3-5 MEAC) at the Florida Classic in Orlando.
Chester earned Most Valuable Player honors after he completed 22 of 34 passes for 339 yards and 5 touchdown passes.
Chester said last week’s drubbing at the hands of Hampton University helped fuel his MVP performance against Bethune-Cookman.
“Last week we got stomped. We went to the drawing board and worked a little harder this week,” Chester said.
Junior wide receiver Willie Hayward, who caught 7 passes for 121 yards, said Chester was more focused this week than he had been all year.
“It was definitely his best game of the year. He really tightened it up. You could tell the way he practiced all week that he was going to come into this game ready to play,” Hayward said.
Hayward also put on a memorable performance in the classic. He led all receivers in yards, including a 40-yarder from Chester midway through the fourth quarter. The two would later hook up on the same drive for one of Hayward’s two touchdown catches. The 29-yard strike gave the Rattlers a 35-21 lead with a little more than five minutes left in the game.
“Chester has the faith in me that if he throws the ball up there, I’m going to go get it. And that’s what I did,” Hayward said.
The Wildcats kept things close in the first half, but the Rattlers took a 9-7 lead into the half after a 27-yard field goal by junior kicker Wesley Taylor.
Bethune-Cookman had some success stopping the FAMU running game early in the contest. The Rattlers rushed for negative 6 yards on 15 carries at the break. The Wildcats also came up with 4 sacks in the first half and finished the game with 7 total sacks.
“They were bringing the same things we saw on film. We just had to make some adjustments at halftime,” said sophomore center Steve Brazzle, who returned from a shoulder injury after missing last week’s game against Hampton.
Tensions in the game ran high as both teams were flagged for unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct during the game.
One of those calls came on a 44-yard touchdown catch by junior wide receiver Ronald Wright early in the fourth quarter.
Wright was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after stopping at the goal line before falling into the end zone with his arms spread. The stadium erupted with excitement after the play, but Wright was whistled for 10 yards.
Despite the call, the touchdown gave FAMU a 28-14 cushion and the momentum the team needed to secure its second straight Florida Classic victory.
“Momentum can really change things on the field, and I saw it change on that play,” said Wildcat head coach Alvin Wyatt.
Wyatt left no playbook page unturned in the Wildcats’ comeback attempt as his squad converted a fake punt attempt in the fourth quarter.
“We didn’t want to leave anything on the board. We needed to get the ball where it needed to be,” Wyatt said. “It went down to the wire. We got the game down to 7, and I felt we were right there.
Despite their aggressive play calls, the Wildcats’ offense still struggled against a healthy Rattler defense who welcomed back starters in redshirt sophomore Vernon Wilder and junior Tyrone McGriff, both previously out with injury.
McGriff made his presence known early, as he recovered a fumble forced by senior defensive lineman Chris Wooten in the first quarter. McGriff also had one sack for a 9-yard loss.
“I was anxious to get back out there. Coming off an injury, it feels pretty good to win. It was a great game,” McGriff said.
The FAMU defense also contained B-CC’s quarterback tandem of Jimmie Russell and Jarod Rucker.
Rucker threw for 98 yards on 8 of 21 passing and also rushed for 57 yards on 9 carries. Russell carried 11 times for 48 yards and completed 5 of 9 passes for 17 yards.
Despite the Rattlers’ early struggles on the ground, the team managed to rush for 107 yards, most of which came in the fourth quarter.
Wyatt said the loss, which gave B-CC its first losing season in nine years, may reveal a lot about how the returning players respond to adversity.
“This could be a setback, or set us up for the future. We will have to feel this pain and come out a better football team next season,” Wyatt said.