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Wildcats seal MEAC, playoffs

B-CC 37, FAMU 10: Dominance over a rival punctuates B-CC's best season.

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002

ORLANDO -- Once-proud Florida A&M entered Saturday's 23rd annual Florida Classic hobbled.

The Rattlers left humbled.

Bethune-Cookman picked apart rival FAMU in Saturday's 37-10 victory, scoring 20 fourth-quarter points to help erase the memory of seven consecutive losses to its in-state foe.

But B-CC did much more in front of 70,201 at the Florida Citrus Bowl. The Wildcats denied the Rattlers a third consecutive Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship and ended FAMU's forgettable season.

FAMU needed a win to clinch a ninth straight trip to the Division I-AA playoffs. Instead B-CC will make its first I-AA postseason appearance after winning its first outright MEAC title since 1984.

"It feels great, it feels great, it feels too great," said Wildcats receiver Erik Lash, who caught six passes for 160 yards and a touchdown. "I can't even explain it. I'm just too happy right now."

It was B-CC coach Alvin Wyatt's first win over FAMU, and after a Gatorade shower he rode on his players' shoulders. As he wildly whipped a towel overhead, the Wildcat faithful poured onto the field.

"He better find some dry clothing," legendary former B-CC coach Jack "Cy" McClairen said. "He may catch pneumonia. I may have to coach us in the first round of the NCAAs."

Months after Wyatt had to dismiss 16 players for academic and disciplinary infractions, B-CC completed its greatest regular season. The Wildcats broke a 55-year-old school record for wins, going 11-1 and 7-1 in the MEAC, and did it while handing the Rattlers (7-5, 5-3) their worst series loss in 26 years.

"I always believed that 11 is bigger than seven," Wyatt said. "We won our 11th game and stopped the streak at seven. I'm so glad that happened, man, you just don't know.

"It's unbelievable, the feeling. I didn't know anything could feel so good in my life."

B-CC won with an opportunistic, red-zone tough defense and a big-play offense, one that lost quarterback Allen Suber on the game's second series. A FAMU helmet struck the Tampa Catholic product's right foot, reinjuring a sprain that had kept him out of the past two games.

In went backup Lawrence McCloud, who rushed 21 times for 58 yards and completed 7-of-9 passes for 162 yards. McCloud did just enough to give B-CC a 17-0 lead.

But when FAMU cut it to 17-10 in the third quarter the defense responded as it had all night. Four times the Rattlers reached the 10-yard line and twice were on the 1, but had to settle for one field goal.

FAMU coach Billy Joe said too many injuries and lack of depth doomed his team. At quarterback, Texas Christian transfer Casey Printers was lost for the season Nov. 9 with a broken thumb. In his place Joe relied on fourth-year walkon Reggie Hayes.

But three Hayes turnovers turned into 21 B-CC points. Linebacker Steve Baggs returned a first-quarter Hayes fumble 30 yards to put the Wildcats up 7-0 with 12:33 left.

Daniel King added a 23-yard field goal with 52 seconds left to pad the lead to 10-0. McCloud's 30-yard scoring pass to Lash with 1:56 left in the half made it 17-0. Only Juan Vasquez's 32-yard field goal with 29 seconds left kept FAMU from a scoreless first half.

Hayes finished 12-for-26 for 261 yards and one touchdown, a 22-yard pass to an open Rashard Pompey to make it 17-10 with 9:34 left in the third. And that was when it all fell apart for the Rattlers.

FAMU gave B-CC four fumbles to go with those three interceptions, one of which Rattlers fullback Paul Sharpe coughed up at the goal line in the fourth. That set up Lamont Finnie's 90-yard touchdown run off the option to put B-CC up 23-10 with 13:40 left. "Oh that was sweet," Wyatt said.

Then the Wildcat secondary took over. Kenny Heatly returned an interception 54 yards for a touchdown with 9:52 left to put B-CC up 30-10; Tyrone Jones took one 74 yards with 6:31 left to make it 37-10.

And remember this: FAMU outgained B-CC 505-357 yards.

"It was hard to watch," an injured Suber said. "But this year has been all about the team anyway."

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