Morgan State coach Donald Hill-Eley looked to the heavens and smiled as a cooler of Gatorade rushed down his back just minutes before the Bears put the finishing touches on their first victory in a year.
Junior linebacker Cody Acker had just sealed the win by returning an interception 19 yards for a touchdown, allowing Morgan State to snap an 11-game losing streak with a 34-21 victory over Florida A&M before an announced 1,259 in its Homecoming game. Afterward, Bears players and coaches converged in the middle of a raucous locker room to sing the school's fight song.
"It's been a long time," Hill-Eley said. "I just feel excited for these young men. They've been working hard. We needed to have some success to continue to move forward."
The Bears (1-5 overall, 1-1 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) won for the first time since Oct. 6, 2012, when they beat Savannah State, 45-6.
Morgan State junior quarterback Seth Higgins (Edgewood) had his most complete game to date. He had 17 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown. Higgins also completed 12 of 20 passes for 144 yards and another score with no interceptions.
"The difference is we didn't beat ourselves," Higgins said. "We didn't do anything special except we just executed. You see the result. Run, pass, whatever it takes to win, we'll do. The team that takes care of the ball, doesn't fumble, doesn't throw interceptions and does their job usually wins."
Bears freshman running back Lamont Brown III also carried the ball 12 times for 88 yards and a touchdown. The Bears focused on pressuring Florida A&M junior quarterback Damien Fleming, who threw three interceptions and now leads the MEAC with nine.
Senior running back Al-Terek McBurse had 110 yards on eight carries, including an 82-yard touchdown for Florida A&M (1-4, 0-1).
Morgan State led 21-7 at the half, but the Rattlers got back in the game midway through the third quarter when sophomore linebacker Akil Blount blocked a field-goal attempt by freshman Chris Moller and freshman defensive back Darren Parker picked up the loose ball and ran 89 yards for the score.
Moller redeemed himself on the next possession with a 44-yard field goal that increased the Bears' lead to 24-14 with 2:05 left in the the third quarter.
Florida A&M responded again on the next drive when Fleming found senior tight end Michael Ethridge for a 17-yard touchdown to pull within three with 12:32 left in the game. However, another 29-yard field goal by Moller gave the Bears some breathing room, and they led 27-21 with 5:41 remaining.
On the ensuing drive, sophomore defensive end Christopher Robinson's (Dunbar) second sack of the day put the Rattlers back at their own 12. Acker intercepted Fleming on the next play, sealing the Bears' victory.
"When we went back out there, I told the defense we were in the same predicament last year, winning on the last drive, but it went sour for us," Acker said. "Let's take this opportunity to put the game on us and make sure this game doesn't come out the wrong way."
It was also the Bears' first win at home since Sept. 1, 2012, a 30-27 victory in quadruple overtime over Sacred Heart.
The Bears took the lead on their first possession with a 15-play, 76-yard drive. On a fourth-and-2 from the 2, the offensive line pushed the Rattlers back and Higgins followed the scrum and got the ball just across the goal line for a 7-0 lead.
Florida A&M tied the game on the ensuing possession when McBurse found a hole in the left side of the line and ran 82 yards for the score.
An interception by sophomore defensive back DeShaun Summers returned to the Rattlers' 33-yard line helped set up Morgan State's second touchdown, a 24-yard run by Brown.
The Rattlers struggled with their tackling, allowing the Bears to grab a few extra yards after initial contact. On a fourth-and-12 in the second quarter, Higgins bounced off a couple of defenders for a 13-yard scramble and first down on the Rattlers' 19. Six plays later, Higgins found junior tight end Eme Akonawe for a 2-yard touchdown and a 21-7 lead with 4:57 left in the half.
"You can't play this game to win and turn the ball over," Hill-Eley said. "We'll just continue to prepare, continue to make correction and move forward."