The defensive effort will cause winces when the game films are viewed, but it was a game Howard University needed to win for its self-respect, if nothing else.

The Bison, with a 257-yard passing performance by sophomore Sandy Nichols and two touchdowns by running back Melvin Sutton, left Alumni Stadium with a 31-27 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference victory over Delaware State today. Sutton's one-yard run, ending a 76-yard drive, provided the winning points with 1:50 left in the game.

Nichols, starting for the first time after two consecutive impressive games in relief, completed 11 of 20 passes against a defense that was rated third best in the NCAA Division I-A before today. He also rushed for 74 net yards on 13 carries.

Four of Nichols' completions were to split end Tracy Singleton. They accounted for 149 yards, including a 79-yard, second-quarter touchdown.

Howard Coach Floyd Keith had said team morale was still good despite the team's slow start. But he was not eager to ponder the future if Howard had lost to the Hornets in this matchup of teams that entered the game 0-3 in the MEAC.

"I don't like to lose any of them," Keith said after the Bison (2-3 overall) defeated the Hornets the 10th time in the last 11 meetings. "It didn't happen today, so I don't have to think about it. Our character came through today."

The Hornets were winless in 10 league games, dating to 1979. Last year, the Hornets lost to Portland State, 105-0.

The Howard defense allowed Delaware State, last in the MEC in total offense, to run 337 yards, including 170 by Johnny Rowe and 110 by Doug Picott. Rowe's 74-yard run on a counter play set up the first score of the game, a two-yard run by Picott with 7:59 gone in the first quarter.

Nichols completed five straight passes for 170 yards during part of the first half. The third was a 79-yarder to Singelton, who had clearly beaten Victor Heflin on a fly pattern down the right side.

Duke Amayo's 33-yard field goal gave the Bison a 10-7 lead with seven minutes to go in the half.

Delaware state quarterback Patrick Spencer threw poorly for three quarters, but ran well. Each time he rolled left on the option, the Bison defense was dumbfounded. He ran 13 yards on the option to put the Hornets ahead, 13-10, with 11:33 left in the third quarter.

Nichols ran 25 yards on a keeper on the first play of Howard's next drive. On the second play, he threw 43 yards to Singleton for a first down at the Hornet five. Nichols scored on a two-yard run and the Bison regained the lead, 17-13, and never trailed again.

Two plays after Picott was stopped on fourth down on the Howard 44, Sutton went 59 yards off tackle for a 24-13 Bison advantage with 4:26 to go in the third period.

The key play of the second half for the mistake-prone Hornets was Spencer's 14-yard pass late in the third quarter to Walter Samuels. Samuels was hit by two players at the Howard three yard line, then Chris Jackson hit him again to pop the ball loose into the end zone. Officials ruled Samuels had not crossed the goal line. Linebacker Robert Sellers recovered in the end zone for Howard.

Spencer scored on an one-yard run, completing a six-play, 53-yard drive set up by Tim King's second interception of the day. Robert McGriff ran for the conversion as the Hornets trailed, 24-21, with 13:24 to go.

With 1:50 remaining Sutton scored on a one-yard run to end a 76-yard Howard drive. Spencer's 28-yard touchdown pass to Terry Staples with 47 seconds left cut the final margin to 31-27.

Nichols, who was sacked eight times last week, was not sacked today. "When you let a guy keep setting up like that, it gives him confidence," said William Collick, the Hornets' defensive coordinator.