ATLANTA — As he directed Howard to its first bowl appearance in nearly three decades and a shot at the Black college football national championship, quarterback Quinton Williams was so conscientious about ball security that he threw just four interceptions on 298 pass attempts.
But the graduate student, a four-year starter, nearly matched that total in an uncharacteristically bumpy performance Saturday, and the defense broke down at inopportune stretches of the fourth quarter to leave the Bison with a 30-26 loss to Florida A&M in the Celebration Bowl.
Williams’s third and final interception with 1:45 left essentially ended any aspirations of a comeback in front of a Mercedes-Benz Stadium crowd of 41,108 that included Vice President Harris, a Howard alum. Williams’s pass was intended for Jarett Hunter, but the running back fell, allowing Rattlers linebacker Isaiah Major to snare the ball at the Howard 19-yard line.
Florida A&M (12-1), the Southwestern Athletic Conference champion that entered on a 10-game winning streak, had grabbed the lead on Jeremy Moussa’s 38-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jah’Marae Sheread with 5:46 to play. Sheread got behind Howard defensive back Carson Hinton, whose 27-yard pick-six on the previous possession had given the Bison, the champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, their last lead of the game.
“You can’t win many games when you turn the ball over three times,” said Williams, who played high school football at Wise. “That’s on me.”
In its debut at the Celebration Bowl, which matches the winners of the premier football conferences featuring historically Black colleges and universities, Howard (6-6) fell short of its first winning season since it finished 7-4 in 2017. Williams completed 14 of 27 attempts for 106 yards as the Bison amassed just 187 yards. The Rattlers had 357.
For Florida A&M, Moussa finished 19 for 32 for 289 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions, and wide receiver Kelvin Dean Jr. (three catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns) was voted the game’s offensive most outstanding player. Major was voted the most outstanding player on defense.
“It’s never fun to lose,” Howard Coach Larry Scott said. “Had opportunities, things that you lose football games with — some penalties, turnovers — especially in championship games. Those are things that bite you, so in the end [we] couldn’t do enough to overcome that.”
The Bison gave up back-to-back touchdowns to fall behind 24-16 with 10:58 remaining. The second of those scores was Moussa’s 53-yard pass to Dean, who made the catch along the sideline and pulled away from safety Xavier Robiou.
Howard trailed for the first time at 17-16 with 13:45 left after it surrendered an 83-yard drive that ended with Moussa’s 21-yard toss to Dean. Moussa’s pass sailed just over the head of linebacker Christian White and settled into Dean’s hands as he tumbled backward in the end zone.
The first half ended with the Bison in front 16-10 thanks in part to Rattlers mistakes, including a holding penalty midway through the second quarter that erased a 31-yard touchdown pass from wide receiver Marcus Riley to Moussa, who was alone in the end zone on the gadget play.
Florida A&M incurred 25 yards in penalties on that series, which ended when defensive end Ian White stepped in front of Moussa’s throw for an interception. Howard took over at its 49-yard line but gave the ball back when Williams threw into a crowd on fourth and 12 and was intercepted by Deco Wilson with 2:08 to go until halftime.
The Rattlers scored the final points of the half on Cameron Gillis’s 41-yard field goal with 11 seconds to play. Earlier in the quarter, defensive end Darrian Brokenburr sacked Moussa in the end zone for the first safety in the eight-game history of the Celebration Bowl.
The Bison were playing in their first bowl game since Dec. 31, 1996, when they rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit to beat Southern, 27-24, in the now-defunct Heritage Bowl at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
This season, Howard secured a berth in the Celebration Bowl by beating Morgan State, 14-7, in the regular season finale at Greene Stadium. The triumph gave the Bison their second straight MEAC title. They finished with the same conference record as North Carolina Central but claimed the tiebreaker via a 50-20 win over the visiting Eagles on Nov 11.
In its first game in nearly a month, Howard produced a rousing start with touchdowns on its first two possessions. The first came on Hunter’s eight-yard run through the middle with 13:29 to play in the opening quarter. The defense forced a turnover on Florida A&M’s first series when White strip-sacked Moussa for a loss of 17 yards. Hinton recovered, setting up the Bison at the Florida A&M 37-yard line. Wide receiver Kasey Hawthorne’s three-yard run bumped Howard’s lead to 14-0 less than five minutes in.
“You never want to watch the other team celebrate,” said Hinton, a senior. “You want to be the one celebrating, but you know we’re definitely going to be back [and will] keep fighting. It’s not a loss — it’s a learning lesson.”