After an unprecedented spring season for first-time head coach Deion Sanders, Jackson State fans waited 148 days to see what Sanders's staff would orchestrate in Year 2.
However, for Florida A&M, the Rattlers graced the gridiron for the first time in 652 days to face Jackson State on Sunday in the Orange Blossom Classic at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida—a game that hasn't been played in 43 years.
Between 1933 to 1978, the Orange Blossom Classic was considered the unofficial Black national championship game, featuring FAMU and another HBCU. The game was initially scheduled for fall 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The FAMU—Jackson State tilt was highly anticipated with the coaching matchup of Willie Simmons vs. Sanders, Shedeur Sanders's college debut along with the highest-rated recruiting class in FCS and HBCU history and the potential for exciting offensive performances.
Instead, there were 12 punts, 20 penalties and five turnovers (three for Jackson State), 8-for-31 on third-down conversions and 13 points among both teams.
But, in any sport, it's not about which team averages the most yards but the one that makes the critical plays when it matters the most. And on Sunday afternoon, in front of fans and former NFL wide receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson, it was Jackson State who came out on top, defeating FAMU 7-6 in a contest that came all the way down to the final seconds.
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Following the Tigers' victory, Sanders and JSU athletic director Ashley Robinson embraced on the field with Robinson full of emotion.
"Yeah baby, yeah baby, we here, we here," Robinson told Sanders.
But, before that heartfelt embrace between Robinson and Sanders, it was a tough 60 minutes as the game showcased flashes of talent as well as room for improvement.
In his debut, Shedeur Sanders bobbled the first snap of the game deep in the Tigers' territory but shook off the early game jitters and three first-half turnovers to finish 18-for-24, throwing for 221 yards and rushing for the game's only touchdown. And, that score did not come for the Tigers until early in the second quarter.
After Sheduer completed a 32-yard pass to Trevonte Rucker (a freshman wide receiver who finished with three catches for 83 yards) down to the Rattlers' six-yard line, FAMU was hit with a penalty for roughing the passer on Shedeur, setting up first and goal for Jackson State. A couple of plays later, Shedeur called his own number and punched it in the end zone to give the Tigers a 7-3 advantage and the game's only touchdown.
"Shedeur was aight," Sanders told the Clarion-Ledger. "I was in his butt, but you got to understand I'm his father, too, and I know what he's capable of doing. He was trying to do too much early on."
The Rattlers, who earned three points in their opening possession thanks to a 21-yard field goal by Jose Romo-Martinez, were unable to get in a consistent rhythm offensively thanks to the play of JSU's defense and specifically the play of several transfer players that Sanders brought to the program that did not play in the spring season.
Sophomore linebacker Nyles Gaddy (Tennessee transfer), who went unblocked during several plays in the Rattlers' second drive of the game, finished with two tackles. Senior defensive lineman Antwan Owens (Georgia Tech) and Shedeur's older brother, Shilo, combined for 10 tackles and wreaked havoc for a Rattlers' offense that switched quarterbacks from Rasean McKay (18-for-29, 78 yds) to Junior Muratovic (5-for-12, 47 yds) in the fourth quarter.
Even in possessions that seemed promising for FAMU, the Tigers' defense came up with stops that forced the Rattlers into punting situations. FAMU is still figuring out issues at the quarterback position and building consistency on offense, a unit that was held to only 234 yards of total offense.
In 2019, the Rattlers' offense averaged nearly 292 passing yards alone in a system that features the "Rac Boyz" in receivers David Manigo (3 catches, 43 yds in Sunday's game), Chad Hunter (7 catches, 49 yds) and Xavier Smith (6 catches, 16 yards) and averaged 32.7 points per game.
But Simmons, who is considered an offensive mastermind, will have to get back to the drawing board to figure out which quarterback will run the offense and one that has big shoes to fill in the replacement of former FAMU quarterback Ryan Stanley.
As for Jackson State, the Tigers—despite the win and the ability to move the ball down the field—still have work to do on special teams and converting on third downs (3-of-14 in the game) and small-yard situations.
In an 11 play, 73-yard drive that started from their own 8, the Tigers took up 4:47 in the fourth quarter and got to the Rattlers' 20 before Shedeur's pass to wide receiver Josh Lanier (Alabama transfer) fell incomplete on third down and running back Peytton Pickett was stopped on fourth down.
But, as the overarching takeaway of the game, Sanders' defense answered the bell when its number was called. As the Tigers were clinging to a 7-6 lead with 2:59 to play, the Rattlers faced fourth down and needed six yards.
Muratovic completed the pass to Hunter but Tigers' Randall Haynie tackled him a yard shy of the first down. And in the final seconds of the game, the Tigers' Cam'Ron Silmon, who finished with seven tackles, came up with the game-wining sack to secure the victory.
When Sanders became the coach at Jackson State in September 2020, the Pro Football Hall of Famer noted that his team would do four things no matter the circumstances—play smart, tough, fast and discipline. It is no doubt that Sanders has a plethora of talent on offense and tenacious defense that will look to remain dominant throughout the season.
However, those changes—erasing five defensive penalties that resulted in 58 yards, improving the punting and converting field goal—will need to be corrected before Sanders faces Eddie George and Tennessee State in the Southern Heritage Classic on Sept. 11.
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