Howard came to Hughes Stadium today desperately wanting a winning season. The Bison did not get their wish but came close before bowing, 27-20, to powerful Morgan State in a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference game.
The win, Morgan State's eight straight since a loss to Grambling gave the Bears (9-1) the MEAC title with a 5-0 league mark. Morgan is ranked No. 4 in Division II.
While the Bears and their band celebrated madly on the field, a solemn Howard squad filed into the locker room. The Bison, finishing 5-6 in Coach Floyd Keith's rookie season, have not enjoyed a winning campaign since 1975 but felt bittersweet about the loss.
"I can stand up and say we're a good football team. We outplayed them," said Keith. "You look at Howard University now and you must strap it on when you play us. The punting game killed us today. To let a game get away like that is sad."
"It's hard to take a loss like this," said Howard senior defensive tackle Roderick Walton. "Everything was there for us today. We should have won. It was a combination of us, the coaches and the officials that stopped us.
"The officials made some bad calls and we made some bad calls," he said.
What hurt Howard most were a horendous punting game and Morgan State's savvy freshman quarterback, Darrell Coulter.
With Howard ahead, 20-17, Bison Robert yartist fumbled a fair-catch attempt on the first play of the fourth quarter. Morgan's Gerald Huggins recovered at midfield. On third down from Howard's 45, Bear Coach Clarence Thomas sneaked reserve quarterback Darrell Brown in at tailback. Brown took a pitch from Coulter and completed a 38-yard pass to diving Clarence Holzendorf.
Howard's defense held, but Morgan's David Booker kicked his second field goal of the day, a 36-yarder, to tie the game with 11:34 to go.
Howard, behind third-string quarterback Raymond Gray, starting his first game, drove back down field. The drive stalled, and Howard Ward's 52-yard field-goal attempt was long enough but wide left.
Morgan took over on its 34, and Coulter, showing unusual poise for a rookie, took the Bears to the winning score. His spectacular 43-yard bomb to Mike Holston put the Bears on the Howard nine. Two plays later, Coulter dropped back to pass, then scrambled through a wide-open middle to score from six yards out.
"That man," Howard linebacker Scott Facyson said of Coulter, "is going to make good things happen in the future for Morgan. By the time he's a senior, he's going to be a hell of a quarterback. We shook him up good, but he showed he was tough."
Even after yielding that score, the Bison, with Keith clapping and cheering them down the field, almost pulled off the upset.
Starting at the Howard 37 with six minutes remaining, Gray and running backs Greg Banes and Ray Cryer moved the Bison into Bear territory. Two Todd Fleming sacks set Howard back, but Gray hit Fitz Fowler for 12 yards on third down to push the Bison to the 20. State stiffened, and three straight incompletions after a one-yard gain by Gray turned the ball over to the Bears with 48 seconds to go.
Howard moved admirably against the Elvis Franks-led defense, compiling 20 first downs and scoring the most points off Morgan of any team this season besides Grambling.But early kicking mistakes proved too much to overcome.
Ward's 24-yard punt gave Morgan possession at its 48 early in the first period, setting up Booker's 47-yard field goal.With Morgan ahead, 10-7, Arthur Cook blocked a Ward punt and Franks picked up the ball to score from 10 yards out early in the second period.
"I told Elvis to rush the up man because he blocked me on the last punt. He did, and I was free," said Cook, who blocked a punt last week that Franks ran in for a score.
"We gave up 10 points free. You can't afford to do that with Morgan," Facyson said.
Howard's comeback, though, left Keith with mixed feelings. Such standouts from the game as sophomore Gray, junior Fowler and freshman defensive back Bob Sowell all return. Four times Howard repelled Morgan when it penetrated Bison territory, once when Facyson made an end-zone interception.
But if Keith sees a rosy Howard future, he also sees Morgan State, which may or may not be in the MEAC next year.
"Coulter is the reason Morgan has won so much," Keith said. "And Clarence Thomas (in his second year) has done a great job with that team."
Franks, Morgan's 6-foot-6, 247-pound monster, spent most of the day falling on unfortunate Howard ball carriers and impressed professional scouts in attendance. "He can be awesome," said one.
The flag-filled game saw Morgan penalized 187 yards, Howard 92.