Howard initiated the era of Coach Floyd Keith yesterday by taking its first season-opener in four years with a 24-17 football victory over West Virginia State.
The Burr Stadium capacity crowd of 7,000 watched the Bison overcome nine penalties, three lost fumbles and a 164-yard rushing performance by Yellow Jacket sophomore tailback Anthony Weaver.
Defensive End Thomas Clark took much of the sting out of State's attack with two fumble recoveries, including one late in the fourth quarter that allowed Howard to preserve the victory. Clark also added a pair of quarterback sacks and a blocked field goal. The Bison dropped Yellow Jacket quarterbacks a dozen times for losses, but were hurt by big plays.
Weaver, a sophomore, broke runs for 55 and 44 yards -- the latter for a touchdown. Senior split end Terry Atkinson -- a 1978 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics All-American at cornerback -- scored on a 66-yard pass play.
Fullback Ray Cryer scored the eventual winning touchdown with 1:45 left in the third quarter. On third and goal from the five, Cryer made a diving catch of Brian Thomas' toss, his feet grazing fair territory as he fell out of bounds.
That made it 24-10 and enabled the Bison to withstand Weaver's 44-yard scoring burst through the middle six minutes later.
"We had a couple of mistakes, like missed tackles and those penalties," said Bison defensive tackle Larry Hamilton. "It was the first game and everybody was a little pumped up. That made us more susceptible to mistakes."
Hamilton was involved in 18 tackles and had three quarterback sacks. His opposite on the right side of the veteran Bison defensive front, end Roderick Walton, came back from a first-half ankle injury to finish with four quarterback drops. Walton also forced two fumbles, both recovered by Clark.
The second recovery cemented the victory. Bison tailback Greg Banes fumbled a handoff away with three minutes left and Howard ahead, 24-17. James Henry recovered for the Jackets.
On the third and seven, Walton popped quarterback Harold Wicks 10 yards behind the line to force loose the ball, Clark's recovery with 1:38 remaining enabled the Bisons to run out the clock.
Howard had refused to guard its lead as it continued to run high-risk pitchout plays and throw occasional passes in the final seven minutes.
"I wasn't going to sit on it," Keith said. "We didn't knock them out and I thought we had a chance to put the game out of reach.
"I have confidence in my offensive system. Those plays weren't high risk. Heck, Banes fumbled on an isolation handoff and you can't get much simpler than that."
Aside from the fumble, sophomore Banes had a good day as he ran for 84 yards on 21 carries and scored a three-yard touchdown in the second quarter to tie the score, 7-7. The Yellow Jackets had shocked Howard with Atkinson's 66-yard scorint catch from starting quarterback Mike Williams late in the first period.
Williams was scrambling for his life when he found safety valve Atkinson all alone at the Boston 44. Atkinson scored easily.
"He did a good job scrambling, Hamilton said. "Our cornerbacks came up to help out and he threw it over them."
A 38-yard field goal by Howard Ward late in the half put the Bison on top 10-7.
Thomas came in to replace starter Ron Wilson on Howard's second series of the second quarter.
"We were having trouble pass protecting and were in a situation where I wanted to go more to the rushing game," Keith said. "Ron's a little better passer but wasn't getting the time to set up."
An interception by freshman safety Doug Jones set up Howard's 22-yard drive for its first touchdown. Early in the third quarter, Thomas guided the Bison on a 53-yard march that was capped when the quarterback plunged into the end zone on fourth and inches for a 17-10 margin.