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Calm freshman QB Martin Ukpai steals spotlight at Florida Classic

Florida A&M’s Martin Ukpai runs for a first down during the first half. With two quarterbacks hurt, the freshman got the start and shined.

Orlando Sentinel

Florida A&M’s Martin Ukpai runs for a first down during the first half. With two quarterbacks hurt, the freshman got the start and shined.

ORLANDO — In a team meeting before every game, Florida A&M coach Joe Taylor salutes the starters by telling them to stand up.

After every other starter stood to be recognized, the coaches shocked freshman Martin Ukpai by telling him to join them.

That might be the only event to unnerve Ukpai this weekend.

On Saturday, he stood and delivered for the Rattlers in his first start, throwing for 151 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 83 and another score in FAMU's 42-6 victory over Bethune-Cookman in the 30th annual Florida Classic.

Statistics tell only half the story because they don't reflect Ukpai's remarkable composure in helping the Rattlers to a 28-0 halftime advantage.

"To be 100 percent honest, I was not nervous at all," said Ukpai, who high-fived adoring fans at the Florida Citrus Bowl with his right hand while holding the Classic trophy in his left.

"I was very excited to be making my first start in the Classic. The main thing was not to freak out about the atmosphere."

Ukpai freaked out the Wildcats with the help of junior running back Phillip Sylvester. Not only did Sylvester's effective running take the pressure off Ukpai, but it helped set up his play-action passes.

The Rattlers' fourth first-half touchdown typified Ukpai's heady play. On second and goal from the 1, FAMU coaches called for a quarterback sneak from its full-house formation that included only one receiver.

Yet Ukpai noticed the Wildcats failed to cover the receiver and quickly threw to a wide-open Kevin Elliot for a ridiculously easy score that appeared to leave Bethune-Cookman deflated.

"It took a lot for a freshman to have the courage to change the play like that," Taylor said. "The future looks bright at quarterback."

Only after the game could Taylor make such a statement.

Last week, senior Curtis Pulley, the team's leading passer (1,824 yards) and rusher (881 yards) and a candidate for the Walter Payton Award as Division I-AA's top player, went down with a pulled groin in a 25-0 loss to Hampton. Backup junior Eddie Battle, after throwing for 32 yards and two interceptions, also got injured, leaving FAMU with a huge question mark.

Ukpai, a 6-foot-3, 170-pounder out of Fort Lauderdale High, immediately answered Saturday. His 20-yard completion and 15-yard run set up the Rattlers' first touchdown, and he later added a 43-yard completion.

In the second quarter, completions of 31, 21 and 8 yards from Ukpai keyed FAMU's second touchdown drive, and his 11-yard run gave them their third touchdown.

Ultimately, Ukpai rendered the game meaningless and made the halftime showdown the most competitive battle of the day. Both bands saluted Michael Jackson, but Ukpai proved to be the real thriller.

His build and his steely attitude resemble Miami's Jacory Harris, but teammates liken him to Pulley.

"I'm not surprised at all by his performance," Sylvester said. "Ukpai's a great athlete. He's a little Pulley. He just needs to learn the game."

Ukpai might get another chance to learn if the Rattlers earn an at-large bid into the playoffs and Pulley remains sidelined. They have a shot after Stony Brook defeated Liberty, the reported contender, 36-33 on Saturday.

Even though the sports editors insist it would be out of place on their pages, sometimes I envision a two-page spread all about the halftime clashes with in-depth analysis from local band directors.

Of course, if Ukpai lives up to the promise he displayed Saturday, the bands will again have a difficult time overshadowing his performance.

That's all I'm saying.

Calm freshman QB Martin Ukpai steals spotlight at Florida Classic 11/21/09 [Last modified: Sunday, November 22, 2009 9:55pm]
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