Rattlers hope to sink Pirate ship

The Rattlers return home Saturday to face Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference opponent Hampton in the last of a five-game stretch facing conference opponents.

The importance of this game for FAMU, in terms of conference standings and a shot at the postseason, is combined with the fact that it is Homecoming.

Both players and coaches said the team’s focus is solely on the game, but acknowledge that Homecoming week can be a distraction.

“The players realize that they have a job to do,” FAMU head coach Billy Joe said. “They can party all night long after the game is over, but we can’t afford to lose our focus before the game.”

Joe said he will take the team to a “distant, secluded location” away from all the Homecoming activities on Friday.

“I wish I could take the team away for the whole week,” Joe said. “But, of course, that’s not possible.”

The Rattlers, on a two-game winning streak after losing consecutive games to conference rivals South Carolina State and Howard, must go undefeated in the rest of its remaining games to have a shot at making the playoffs.

The easy part is over.

The Rattlers’ last two opponents had losing records (North Carolina A&T is 3-5, Norfolk State is 2-5). However, two of FAMU’s final three opponents, Hampton and Bethune-Cookman, have a combined record of 13-3. The third opponent is Division I-A Troy State.

“We have to prepare for this week and play this game like it’s our last,” free safety Levy Brown said. “If we lose, we’re out [of playoff contention]. It’s as simple as that.”

Although senior quarterback Casey Printers was pulled out of last week’s win after re-aggravating his ankle sprain, he will start against the Pirates. Joe said there is no quarterback controversy, despite backup Reggie Hayes’ stellar performances in relief of Printers, including Saturday’s come-from-behind win.

“I’ve said it all along, when Casey is healthy, he’s our starter,” Joe said. “His ankle sprain was flaring up, so I thought it was in the team’s best interest to let Reggie finish the game.

“It’s nice to have a backup as capable as Reggie.”

Brown, who has missed the past three weeks with a shoulder injury, is also expected to start Saturday. He came in during the final series of last Saturday’s game and grabbed his eighth interception of the season. His return may be coming at the best possible time for FAMU. The Rattlers will have to contend with Hampton receiver Zuriel Smith, who leads the MEAC in catches per game (5.5), receiving yards (678) and receiving yards per game (84.8). He also has five touchdown catches this season. Brown said containing Smith will take a team effort.

“When the front line puts pressure on the quarterback, [the secondary] can make big plays,” Brown said. “We need to do that Saturday.”

Hampton’s offense is about as balanced as an offense can be. The Pirates average 195 yards per game both on the ground and in the air. While most teams in the MEAC have either one or two running backs that carry the load, Hampton has three.

Junior Rian Thompson leads the group with 425 yards and nine touchdowns. The Pirates are averaging three rushing touchdowns per game.

Although the Rattlers have had problems with stopping the run this season, they have only given up an average of 127 yards in the last two games.

“We just have to make plays,” defensive end Jeff Green said. “We’ve been doing a lot of blitzing, and it’s starting to become more effective now. We’ve been working on the run in practice, so I think we’ll be ready.”