ORLANDO — Florida A&M running back Philip Sylvester almost spent more time going backward than forward during the first half of Saturday's Florida Classic.
But when a force begins to take motion, something has to give, and in this case it was the Bethune-Cookman defense.
Sylvester had 2 rushing yards at halftime, and it looked like his string of five 100-yard games was in jeopardy. But some halftime adjustments and patience got Sylvester moving forward, and his 144 second-half yards sparked an upset of previously unbeaten B-CU 38-27.
The Rattlers' (8-3, 7-1) victory, before a Citrus Bowl crowd of 61,712 at the 31st Florida Classic, gave them a one-third share of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship.
Bethune-Cookman (10-1, 7-1), which clinched a tie for the title a week ago, earns the league's automatic bid to the Division I-AA playoffs because of the conference's tiebreaker policies. The Wildcats will learn who their playoff opponent is this morning, while South Carolina State (9-2, 7-1), the other team sharing a third of the MEAC crown, will wait with FAMU to see if they made the field.
"We just wanted to come out here and get a piece of that MEAC championship," said Sylvester, the game MVP. "… Thank you, Rattler nation, for not giving up on us."
And it could have.
After Sylvester's 9-yard touchdown run and an Austin Trainor-to-Antonio Lawrence touchdown pass, FAMU led 14-6 in the first quarter.
But thanks to mistakes and penalties by the Rattlers, B-CU scored three straight second-quarter touchdowns, the last one a 35-yard pass from Matt Johnson to Eddie Poole, and the Wildcats went ahead 27-14 by halftime.
"We were hoping to hit some passes in there to loosen it up (in the second half)," FAMU coach Joe Taylor said of his team's 14 yards rushing in the first half. "They were just loading the box … eight, nine in there and rushing on us. After we made a few first downs I thought they were getting somewhat winded, and that's when we started to hand off."
That was mainly to Sylvester.
On the Rattlers' second drive of the second half, Sylvester carried three times for 12, 11 and 13 yards, respectively, the latter finding the end zone and the Rattlers were within 27-24.
"We came out throwing in the second half, and once we got them to change the defense, we just put the ball in Philip's hands and let him do his thing," said Trainor, who threw for 261 yards, connecting on 19-of-38 attempts with a touchdown.
Then came the big hit.
Johnson, B-CU's quarterback and the MEAC offensive player of the year, hit Poole for 45 yards and the Wildcats were threatening midway through the third quarter. That's when FAMU's 6-foot-5, 275-pound defensive end Kendrick Washington chased down Johnson, forcing him to fumble and injuring the QB's shoulder.
FAMU's Marquiste Ramos picked up the loose ball and ran 56 yards to the B-CU 22-yard line. FAMU failed to capitalize, but the damage had been done.
"Our offense didn't move the ball after losing our quarterback," B-CU coach Brian Jenkins said. "… Jackie (Wilson) our backup quarterback also had a highly severe sprained ankle early. When those two guys were healthy you see we were moving the ball, they couldn't stop us."
Without them, the Wildcats had minus-12 yards the rest of the way.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.