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Wildcats get tough up close

Florida A&M was denied on several drives near the Bethune-Cookman goal line.

By FRANK PASTOR
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002


ORLANDO -- Florida A&M prides itself on its "Marching 100" Band's ability to spread itself across the field.

Unfortunately for the Rattlers, their offense could cover only 99 yards Saturday against Bethune-Cookman, which explains their first Florida Classic loss in eight seasons.

B-CC's bend-but-don't-break defense stopped FAMU four times inside the Wildcats 10-yard line, including twice at the 1, to turn back the Rattlers 37-10.

"If you look at the stats, we probably have the greatest goal-line defense across the country in any division of football," B-CC defensive back Rashean Mathis said. "Once they get down there, we feel it's pride. It's mano a mano, and we feel we're the best man."

A defense that entered ranked fourth in Division I-AA in total defense (243.5 yards a game) and seventh in passing defense (121.6) allowed 505 total yards but forced seven turnovers, returning three for touchdowns.

"I just feel like the defense, I've said it since the beginning, is the backbone of this whole team," outside linebacker Steve Baggs said. "Even with (quarterback Allen) Suber in the lineup."

Baggs set the tone early, returning Reggie Hayes' fumble 30 yards for a touchdown to give B-CC a 7-0 lead less than three minutes into the game. Baggs came free on a blitz and was in position to catch the ball after it slipped out of Hayes' hand.

"I was a little surprised at how easy I got in," Baggs said. "I hesitated a little bit, but I came up with a big play, caught the ball and ran it in."

Baggs punctuated the score with a dive into the end zone.

"My first touchdown of my collegiate career was a 75-yard fumble recovery at Jacksonville," Baggs said. "I ran out of gas, but I still made it. I wasn't able to do any celebrations. I just passed out, so the guys always got me on that."

B-CC led 7-0 when a 63-yard pass from Hayes to Andrae Harrison gave FAMU a first down at the Wildcats 8. Two Hayes carries for 7 yards and an incompletion set up fourth and goal from the 1. With both squads squeezed in tight, Paul Sharpe was stuffed for no gain.

Down 17-0 late in the second quarter, FAMU threatened to get back in it after Harrison's catch moved the ball to the B-CC 12 with 1:30 left in the half. Hayes gained 3 yards on a draw before an incompletion and an Alex Saunders sack forced the Rattlers to settle for Juan Vasquez's 32-yard field goal.

After closing to 17-10, FAMU drove to the B-CC 17 with a chance to tie in the third. But Mathis intercepted Hayes in the end zone.

"It got shaky for us in that third quarter," B-CC coach Alvin Wyatt said. "It's when FAMU always comes back on us. We hung in there and came up with huge plays on defense."

FAMU still wasn't done.

Early in the fourth quarter, a 44-yard run by the Rattlers' Devvin Richardson took the ball to the B-CC 5. Sharpe was stopped for no gain on first down and fumbled on the next play, with linebacker Lonnie Estes recovering at the Wildcats 1 with 13:54 to play.

"It's obviously a real stressful place to be in, but that's where you show you're a championship defense," Baggs said.

Interception returns for touchdowns of 56 yards by Kenny Heatly with 9:52 remaining and 74 yards by Tyrone Jones with 6:31 to play put the finishing touches on B-CC's win.

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