Injuries on the offensive end were not enough to stall the Florida A&M University Rattlers. The Rattlers put their defeat at the hands of the Hampton University Pirates behind them to show up strong at the 30th Annual Florida Classic in Orlando, and defeat the Bethune-Cookman University Wildcats 42-6.
With this victory, Rattlers improve to 8-3 overall with a 6-2 conference record.
The Rattlers offense found new life behind redshirt freshman quarterback Martin Ukpai, putting up 419 yards of total offense. Ukpai stepped up to fill voids left by quarterbacks Curtis Pulley and Eddie Battle, out with a groin injury and a shoulder sprain respectively.
Upkai’s first collegiate start came in front of a crowd of 59,418 screaming fans. With Upkai at the helm, the Rattlers scored 28 points in the first half. Upkai completed eight of his first 10 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown. Upkai also rushed for 60 yards and a touchdown in the first half.
According to Florida A&M head coach Joe Taylor, practices were held in a different manner in order to prepare the team for Bethune-Cookman and Upkai specifically for his role as the starter.
“I think the strategy that Coach [Taylor] called this week just made it easy to block for whoever was back there,” said senior right guard Robert Okeafor. “[Upkai] just did a wonderful job of managing time and managing the game.”
The quarterback’s performance helped the Rattlers build a 28-0 halftime lead. Through the air, the Rattlers were efficient, as Upkai completed eight of his 11 passes for 151 yards.
“I’m not surprised,” said junior running back Philip Sylvester. “Upkai is a great athlete. A lot of people call him ‘Little Pulley’ because he can everything [Curtis] Pulley can do.”
Taylor also stated how impressed he was not just with Upkai’s breakout performance, but with the play of a team that was completely shut out the week before.
“He worked all week,” Taylor said. “He was healthy. We thought he had a good week of practice. I’m so proud of him because he showed a lot of composure. I’m really proud of the character of the whole team. Like I told them last week, ‘one game does not define who you are.'”
The only blight on Upkai’s performance came from a pass that was bobbled by senior fullback Mykel Benson before being intercepted by senior cornerback Antwuan Cox. The interception was quickly forgotten.
Efficiency through the air led to dominance on the ground. The Rattlers rushed for 268 yards and five touchdowns and were led Sylvester with 121 yards and two touchdowns. Sylvester was also voted the Most Valuable Player for the Rattlers.
“We just came here out and played,” Sylvester said. “The O-line knew that we were going to ride their backs because we were going to run it a majority of the time. Our quarterback and our backup quarterback were down so they knew what they had to do. They made it happen.”
The defense also clicked, intercepting three passes and not allowing a touchdown through the air. Bethune-Cookman only touchdown came after three and a half quarters of struggling, and then their extra point attempt was blocked.
“The coaches did a good job of using computers to break down percentages for their tendencies based on their formations,” Taylor said.
The Wildcats (5-6, 4-4 in the Mid Eastern Athletic Conference) came into the game having won three straight games and five of their previous six after starting the season 0-4.
Although slim, the Rattlers still have shot at making the playoffs. The last time they made the playoffs with an 8-3 record was in 1999. They advanced to the semifinals before losing to Youngstown State.
The selection show for the Division I Football Championship Subdivision is tomorrow on ESPU at 3:30 p.m.