Florida A&M takes place atop SWAC East standings with Orange Blossom Classic win
Rattlers defeat division rival Jackson State, avenging consecutive losses
In Florida A&M’s final Orange Blossom Classic, the Rattlers left Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, with their heads held high and control of the Southwestern Athletic Conference East standings for the first time since joining the conference in 2021.
“We knew coming into this game there was a lot at stake. We know the past two years the winner of this game has won the East,” said Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons. “[The SWAC East] was not decided today, but we still control our own destiny, and that’s something we always want to do.”
Florida A&M’s offense, which combined for nine points in the last two Orange Blossom Classic games, scored four unanswered touchdowns Sunday, including a 96-yard kickoff return by graduate student Marcus Riley that put the Rattlers ahead 11 seconds into the game.
“It was like a boxing match. You know, we took a heavy hit right there in the first round. It was [an] amazing return by that kid. He did what he was supposed to do, but we had to rebound from it,” said Jackson State coach T.C. Taylor. “I thought that kind of set the tone for their program. That football team got the energy going on that side, the momentum on that side. … And it just took us a while to get over.”
Riley, a native of Tallahassee, Florida, transferred from Bethune-Cookman to Florida A&M this season. The wide receiver had only one kick return attempt before taking the opening kick in the classic for a touchdown.
“Jackson State, them boys been running the SWAC for the last two seasons. Basically they’ve been the Alabama [of] HBCU [football], so we had to calm them down a little bit,” Riley said. “It meant a lot to come home and beat Jack State. It meant a lot to get the first win of the season against a conference team.”
Florida A&M’s win ended a four-game losing streak to Jackson State, according to Josh Padilla, director of athletic communications & digital strategy at FAMU. Rattlers quarterback Jeremy Moussa, a second-year starter, completed 12 of 22 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
“It definitely meant a lot. You know, we talked about what our goals are this season, and it’s no secret we’re trying to get to the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta,” Moussa said. “These guys were the guys holding us back from that, so you know we’re really motivated to come out here, play hard football and play clean football. I thought we did a good job of getting on them early.”
The Rattlers are satisfied with the win but know there’s a lot of room for improvement. They jumped out to a 28-0 lead in the first half before being shut out in the second half.
“It’s a Jedi mind trick trying to get these guys to really understand about just finishing right,” Simmons said. “I’m chasing the ghost of [former FAMU coach] Jake Gaither every day, and Jake coined the phrase ‘Kill a mosquito with an ax.’ Just having that type of killer mindset that you don’t take your foot off the gas no matter how much time is on the clock, and that’s something that this team has grown into.”
Moussa said the team still has more to prove.
“Coach talks about how talented of a team we are, and I feel like we won the game pretty handily and didn’t even play anywhere near our best game,” he said. “So, there’s a lot of improvement, and people are really gonna see how great of a team we can be.”
Florida A&M dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. On offense the Rattlers ran for 207 rushing yards while holding the Tigers to just 72 rushing yards for the game. On the defensive side of the ball the Rattlers combined for four sacks and seven tackles for loss resulting in a loss of 26 yards.
Despite losing talented seniors Xavier Smith and Isaiah Land, who are now playing with the Los Angeles Rams and Indianapolis Colts, respectively, Simmons believes the team still has a strong sense of leadership that makes the difference this year.
“I think this year we have a better group of leadership,” Simmons said. “These guys are really committed to doing the things right, having the player-only meetings, really upholding the standard.
“That really speaks to the pulse of this football team, and I think that’s the biggest difference. Leadership has to be a group effort, and I think this group has the type of leadership that makes a championship football team.”