Florida A&M struggled all afternoon before finally resorting to its "Sting Play" to nip Howard 21-13, yesterday before an estimated 11,000 at RFK Stadium.

"I don't know what was wrong," said A&M's leading tackler, nose guard Harrell Oliver, "except we missed three days of practice this week because of the weather. We beat Grambling (25-7) at Grambling before this game. And we play Miami (of Florida) in the Orange Bowl next week. And we had six starters out.

"We sure weren't expecting to be in a game. We played them cheap," said Oliver, in the morgue-like A&M locker room. "We did a lot of things wrong. But we had just enough to win."

A&M, now 3-0 after its 10th straight victory and 27th in its last 28 outings, hardly impressed anyone. The Rattlers lost the ball four times, committed 10 penalties and lacked enthusiasm throughout the contest. The offense was repeatedly stymied by a hustling Bison defense, and the defense found itself putting in more minutes on the field than it has been used to.

Howard got back into the game following a 33-yard field goal by Bison kicker Howard Ward with 24 seconds left in the third quarter. Ward's high-arching boot narrowed the deficit to 14-13, and the Rattlers began getting restless.

After the teams exchanges punts, A&M began a slow march. Six running plays and an 11-yard pass from Sammy Knight to Archie Jones advanced the ball to the Howard 19, where the visitors faced a fourth and two.

Howard, looking for a run all the way,bunched its linebackers in tight and moved its defensive backs closer. But Knight, who had completed only one pass before yesterday's game, didn't even bother faking his backs into the line. He pulled the string on a soft, floating pass easily caught by tight end Terry Davis who walked 10 yards to the end zone.

Howard was stung, fatally.

"That play was called from the bench," said Knight, who completed five of 14 for 80 yards and had three interecepted. "We needed it."

Vincent Coleman's third conversation kick gave much relieved A&M a 21-13 lead with 7:58 to play in the game.

"We were just sloppy," said Rattler tailback Daniel Oliver. "They were just hard to get up for."

The Rattlers, who had allowed but 95 rushing yards and seven points in their first two victories, were not about to have a letdown now.

An Oliver-led A&M defense limited Howard to eight yards on its next three possessions. Howards' best chance to rally came with just over three minutes to play when it took over at the Rattler 49.

Quarterback Ronald Wilson, who finished with six yards on 14 rushes and eight completions in 19 passes, ran up the middle for nine yards to the A&M 40.

The next two plays netted nothing and the Bison faced fourth down.Wilson rolled to his right and fired a pass that was far over the head of intended receiver Ray Cryer and Howard was finished for the afternoon.

"We just didn't hit the passes when we needed them," said Howard Coach Floyd Keith. "We stayed pretty conservative because we would have been content with the field goal. We wanted to get within field goal range."

Howard didn't lose the game in the final minutes. The Bison (2-2) had problems of their own holding onto the football. Wilson under heavy pressure all day, was hurried into two interceptions and sacked four times. Brian Thomas, inserted for Wilson early in the third quarter to provide a spark, was interecepted on his first pass at the A&M two. Back came Wilson.

"We tried Brian because, well, he had been hurt and the interception was just one of those things," Keith said.

A&M looked impressive the first time it touched the ball. The offensive line moved people, and Jones (124 yards on 17 carried) and Mike Solomon (49 yards on 14 carries) picked up huge chunks of yards. The Rattlers needed only eight plays and a Bison 15-yard penalty to take the lead. Knight waited until the final second before pitching the ball out to Jones, who scored standing up from 13 yards for the six points. The kick was good and A&M was ahead, 7-0, with just 2:53 elapsed.

Over the next six minutes, three interceptions were thrown, two by Knight. Doug Jones' theft, following a deflection, gave Howard the ball at its 35.

Wilson fired incomplete on first down, then found split end Greg Scott five yards behind Rattler cornerback Thomas Lane on the left sideline. Scott caught the pass at the Rattler 40 and easily outran Lane to complete a 65-yard pass-run play for a touchdown. Ward's kick was good and the score was tied at 7 with 2:07 left in the first period.

The Rattlers came right back and moved 78 yards in nine plays to regain the lead. Knight ducked through a hole in the Howard line and scored from three yards out. Coleman's kick made it 14-7.

Ward narrowed the deficit to 14-10, with a 27-yard field goal later in the period and Howard left the field feeling confident.

"Our defense is very well balanced. We basically try to shut off the run and that's what we concentrated on the second half," said Oliver. "But we still didn't put enough pressure on them."

Howard netted 110 of its 204 yards after intermission but could manage only a second Ward field goal.The Bison controlled the ball in the third period, moving to the A&M 37, 10, 35 and 38. Ward barely missed a 54-yard attempt on the Bison's first drive.

Humiliated by MEAC powerhouse South Carolina State, 55-17, last week, Howard limited A&M to 268 yards. But 211 of those came on the Rattler scoring drives.

"Like I said," repeated Oliver, "we did just enough to win."