Florida A&M Rattlers (6-6 in 2003) vs. Illinois Fighting Illini (1-11 in 2003)
September 4, 2004 (5 PM Central)
Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL
On September 4th, the Illini open up the 2004 football season at home against a team from Tallahassee, Florida. Fortunately, it is not the Florida State Seminoles. Illinois will kickoff the season against the Florida A&M Rattlers. When the game was scheduled, FAMU had planned on competing as a Division 1 team this year. Numerous setbacks have changed that plan and the Rattlers will once again be considered a Division 1-AA team. However, in a rare good decision by the NCAA, a win by a Division 1 team against FAMU will count towards that team's bowl eligibility.
Florida A&M has more problems than trying to get established as a Division 1 school. In July, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference informed coach Billy Joe that they were going to strip FAMU of its 2000 and 2001 football titles, due to 196 violations that mostly deal with academic eligibility. The Rattlers could reach Division 1 just in time to be slapped around by the NCAA.
The strength of the Rattlers appears to be their spread offense. FAMU only loses 2 starters on the offensive side of the ball from last year. Senior QB Ben Dougherty can hurt opposing defenses with his arm or his legs. In 2003, Dougherty completed 234 of 368 pass attempts for 2,502 yards, with 13 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. The signal caller also carried the ball155 times for 674 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Dougherty's two main returning targets are wide receivers Rod Miller and Cardan Alexander. Miller hauled in 71 passes for a total of 829 yards and 6 TD's. Alexander had 53 catches for 594 yards and visited the endzone 3 times.
Running back Rashard Pompey helped Dougherty carry the load in the rushing game. The junior back had 163 attempts for 721 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Defense wasn't the strong suit for Florida A&M last year and this year they will need to replace 6 starters on defense. The Rattlers lost their four leading tacklers from 2003 to graduation. Gone from campus are linebackers Shedrick Copeland and Chris Sessions, cornerback Julian Worley and All-America safety Levy Brown and their combined 275 total tackles, 11 interceptions and 13 tackles for loss.
The leading return tacklers for FAMU are OLB Justin Cooper (55 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception and 1 fumble recovery), CB Edward Kwaku (50 tackles and 1 interception) and DT John Edwards (50 tackles and 2 sacks). The Rattlers basic defenses are 46 and 43 alignments under interim defensive coordinator Derek Hill.
This game should be a chance for the Illini to pick up a win and get some confidence. However, no game against a team from a football hotbed like Florida can be considered a sure thing. Rattlers coach Joe is the winningest active coach in Division 1-AA (234 wins) and the fourth winningest coach in Division 1. So, he knows how to put together a winning game plan.
This season is most definitely a make or break campaign for Illinois coach Ron Turner and his staff. While it might not be fair to call the first game of the year a must-win game, I'm afraid that term applies to this contest. If the Illini lose to a Division 1-AA team in Memorial Stadium, attendance numbers that figure to be low will plummet. Illinois has a favorable schedule with all of their games in September in Champaign. A big win against Florida A&M could be the catalyst to a return to respectability. This game could be ugly, but fans should come out at least to watch the famous Florida A&M marching band.