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Bison Offense unravels late against Florida A&M in Celebration Bowl loss

The Howard University Bison lost 30-26 to the Florida A&M University Rattlers.

Howard University football player grieving loss to FAMU. (Photo by Darius Harris for The Hilltop)

Heading into the Cricket Celebration Bowl, Howard University’s quarterback Quinton Williams had thrown only four interceptions the entire season. 

However, last Saturday’s three interception performance leaves his senior campaign defined by throwing interceptions in the most devastating moments. 

The atmosphere in the home side of Mercedes-Benz flatlined as Howard University fans were forced to watch a familiar sequence unfold when Williams’ second interception in two offensive plays dashed any hope of a game winning drive inside of two minutes, and sealed FAMU’s 30-26 victory over the Bison.

Howard University supporters watched earlier in the season as a potential game-winning drive was stifled by an interception thrown by Williams in the closing minutes of the ball game against the Hampton Pirates, the university’s biggest rival. Months later after the team had seemed to turn a corner, the Bison’s biggest game ended in the same disappointing fashion.

“You can’t win many games when you turn the ball over three times… so that’s on me,” Williams said after the game.

Quinton Williams talks with offensive weapons during Celebration Bowl. (Photo by Darius Harris for The Hilltop)

Heading into the game, the MEAC boasted six Celebration Bowl (which is widely recognized as the HBCU/Black National Championship) wins to only one victory for the SWAC. 

With FAMU having recently fled the MEAC to join the SWAC, this bowl game was a significant matchup given the history between the two universities who had not faced off since 2019, the Rattlers’ last year in the MEAC. 

This backdrop attracted the third largest crowd in Celebration Bowl history in the 2023 iteration of the game, with 41,108 spectators in attendance according to the bowl’s media official.

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The Rattlers’ success was motored by their ability to hold the Bison, who came into the matchup ranked 24th in rushing in the FCS, to only 2.9 yards per carry, forcing Williams to shoulder the brunt of the offensive load. Once the rushing attack anchored by running back tandem Eden James and Jarrett Hunter was nullified, the Rattlers took advantage of a passing game that is less than stellar when the running backs aren’t effective. 

Howard University head football coach Larry Scott detailed his staff’s effort to remain multi-dimensional despite the team’s struggles. “I knew we were going to have to stay balanced and not let them just dial in on one thing. I think for the most part we were able to do that but there were critical times where we didn’t get it done, we just didn’t execute,” Scott explained.

Despite the offensive struggles, the Bison kept the game close with big plays on defense including two turnovers at the hands of senior defensive back Carson Hinton featuring a pick-six to put the Bison ahead 26-24 with just over seven minutes to play.

Bison defensive back Carson Hinton. (Photo by Darius Harris for The Hilltop)

“I saw the play before that they ran the same exact play,” Hinton told the media following the game. “He wanted to throw it because he saw me out-leveraged. They went back to it and I just jumped it.”

Desperate for a big play amid the Bison’s defensive momentum, the Rattlers ran a flea-flicker trick play to score a 38-yard touchdown flung by Vanderbilt transfer quarterback Jeremy Moussa. With this score, the Rattlers took a 30-26 lead with 5:46 to play, and began the ensuing avalanche of disaster for the Bison.

Looking to respond on the following drive, Williams threw an interception on the third play of the drive, brought down by FAMU defensive back Kendall Bohler.

After the Bison defense stopped the Rattlers on three consecutive run plays, giving the offense one last chance to put together a game-winning drive, the Bison stared down the end zone from their own 23 yard line with 1:50 remaining. 

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On the first down play, the Bison looked to lean on their running backs once more with a screen pass to get things moving, only the attempt was picked off by FAMU senior linebacker Isaiah Major, effectively ending the Bison’s chances at a Black National Championship title.

Atlanta native and Howard University supporter Jordan Matthew expressed his frustration after fleeing the stands following the final interception.

“Every time we get some hope in a big moment, it seems like we don’t pull through,” Matthew lamented. “When we can front run, we really show out. But when we’re on the cusp of doing something huge like defeating a Power Five opponent, beating Hampton or winning the championship game, we never make the right plays.”

Actor Lance Gross watches his alma mater in Celebration Bowl. (Photo by Darius Harris for The Hilltop)

Amid the reaction from Howard University supporters in attendance, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Georgia senator Raphael Warnock, MVP quarterback Cam Newton and actor Lance Gross, among other distinguished guests, departing graduate student Williams projected optimism for the future of the Howard University football program.

“Coach talked about setting the standard for the teams to come. I feel like we set the standard to build on,” Williams said. 

Despite the outcome of the Celebration Bowl, the Bison have ascended to the class of the MEAC, as outright champions for the first time in decades. The standard that Williams alluded to is now at a championship level, having done a complete turnaround from the state that the program was in when Coach Scott took over as head coach in 2019 – a season in which the Bison finished seventh in the MEAC.

“Howard should be proud of what the football team was able to do this year. It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to win that game, but they beat a team that was number seven in the FCS in North Carolina Central to get the outright MEAC Championship,” Howard University graduate and journalist Mekhi Abott told The Hilltop. “Making it to the Celebration Bowl for the first time in school history is also something to be proud of… we shouldn’t lose sight of that.”

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Harris expressed her pleasure with the team’s performance, despite the loss, in an instagram post. Harris said, “Today’s game was a celebration of HBCU culture and excellence. Always proud of my @howard1867 Bison. Congratulations to the @famu_1887 Rattlers!”

Copy edited by Jasper Smith

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