Illinois, Florida A&M; prepare for Saturday afternoon face-off

llinois place kicker Jason Reda (13) attempts a field goal while Zach Gray holds. Online Poster

llinois place kicker Jason Reda (13) attempts a field goal while Zach Gray holds. Online Poster

By Lisa Koulias

Coming into Saturday’s game against Illinois, Florida A&M; knows it is the underdog.

The Division I-AA school knows it can’t compare its program to a Big Ten team.

“The University of Illinois has a great and storied program, a tremendous legacy,” said Florida A&M; head coach Billy Joe. “They are a good, sound Big Ten program. They are far superior to any I-AA program in the country. They are far superior to us in every way – size, speed, strength, facilities, finances in their coffers. This will be a tremendous challenge for us. We understand that, and we are looking forward to it. We welcome the opportunity to be on the same field with Illinois, a Big Ten opponent.”

Unfortunately, the Rattlers will have to do it without three projected starters and another player who will serve NCAA suspensions for playing games while ineligible.

According to a Monday USA Today article, the NCAA ruled senior defensive back Edward Kwaku and senior defensive tackle John Edwards will miss the first three games. Senior offensive lineman Fletcher Williams will miss the first five, while senior receiver Rod Miller will sit out the first six games.

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The USA Today article stated that in a report submitted by the school to the NCAA, all four players were ineligible during several games last year because they didn’t satisfy NCAA requirements for completing a certain number of credits.

“The mistakes made happened,” Joe said. “(They) didn’t have anything to do with the players or the coaches, but it affects us just the same, so we take the approach that we simply have to move forward, to overcome this situation. We’re going to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and move on.”

Quarterback Ben Dougherty realized the significance of losing some of the team’s leaders and admitted that it was hard to concentrate on the matter at hand: Saturday’s game.

“It’s been difficult to keep focus with all the off-field stuff and it hurts to lose teammates,” Dougherty said. “But we just have to step our games up. We just have to play better because we’re missing some key people.

“Coach Joe always has a smile on his face. He’s always upbeat, telling us that a challenge is nothing but an opportunity for success. So a game like this is a bigger challenge, a bigger opportunity for success.”

Illinois knows it can’t take this team lightly either. While the Illini would love to start the season with a win, they know the Rattlers need a win just as much.

“We are playing a good football team,” said Illini head coach Ron Turner. “They’ve got great history, great tradition. They’ve got a very good team and are extremely athletic. They are as athletic as any team we have faced. They are very quick, fast.”

Leading the Rattlers is their 24-year-old quarterback Dougherty. The senior passed for 2,502 yards last season and threw 13 touchdowns. He was also the team’s second-best rusher with 674 yards on 155 carries and 8 touchdowns.

“They have a great quarterback,” Turner said. “I’m really impressed with him. He is very accurate and he is 24 years old, so it will be a battle of the veteran quarterbacks. He is a smart player and does a great job of leading them so they’ve got a lot of really good athletes. We have to come ready to play.”

Florida A&M;’s wide open offense should also be a good test for an Illini defense that allowed 33.2 points a game last season.

“It will be a test. It will be a strong test – there is no question about it,” Turner said. “They’ve got great athletes. They know what they want to do on offense. They’ve got an experienced veteran quarterback leading it who is very accurate and athletic. And they’ve got great speed and skill on the outside. They have an offensive line that averages 326 pounds, so, yeah, it is definitely going to be a tremendous test for our defense.”

Tough road ahead

Florida A&M; have a tough season ahead of them. Saturday’s season opener against Illinois is the first of six Division I-A games the Rattlers will play this season.

On schedule for the Rattlers after the Illini are Tulane (Sept. 11), Temple (Sept. 18), and Virginia Tech (Oct. 16). They will also face divisional newcomers Florida Atlantic (Oct. 30) and Florida International (Nov. 27).