Howard failed to score on four downs inside the Liberty Baptist 10-yard line in the final two minutes and lost to the Division II school, 15-10, in the season opener for both teams today at Lynchburg City Stadium.
On fourth down with 48 seconds left, Howard tight end Maurice Haynes caught a pass from quarterback Sandy Nichols, but was tackled at the one. Liberty Baptist took over and ran out the clock. Nichols said later he was aiming for another receiver in the end zone, but Haynes reached up and grabbed the ball.
"On fourth down, you have to throw the ball in the end zone," said Howard's first-year coach, Joe Taylor. "I don't think he threw to the right person. A poor read."
Nichols said he was looking at flanker Herbert White in the corner of the end zone. "The ball was intended for him," Nichols said.
Outplayed much of the game, Liberty Baptist got to Howard on two big plays in its winning drive to erase a 10-7 Bison lead midway through the fourth period.
Bison defender Jimmy Diggs let Guy Shashaty get behind him and the flanker made a nice over-the-shoulder catch of a 37-yard pass from Phil Basso (16 of 34 for 218 yards) for a first down at the Howard 42.
Flames tailback James Cole, who gained only 89 total yards in 1982, took a pitch from Basso, got two blocks at the line of scrimmage and raced 42 yards for a touchdown. The snap was low but Shashaty scooped up the ball and ran over for the two-point conversion and a 15-10 Flames' lead with 5:47 left in the game.
"Liberty Baptist hit a couple of big plays on us," said Taylor who, as defensive coordinator in 1982, saw the Bison hurt by big plays frequently. "I thought we played much improved football for four periods, but our youth showed. Liberty Baptist was smart enough to take advantage of us when we were forced to use some freshmen on defense."
Despite some crucial mistakes and an inconsistent offense, Howard still had an opportunity to win. Starting at their 25, the Bison used good running by Mike Holmes and two fine plays by Nichols to get upfield.
A 13-yard scramble on a third-and-10 call by Nichols and a 38-yard pass completion to tailback Melvin Sutton gave Howard first and goal at the nine.
Nichols tried two alley-oop passes to White in the left corner of the end zone, but the freshman was tightly covered by two defenders. Too tightly covered, said Taylor.
"I felt both plays were pass interference," Taylor said, "but . . . "
A sweep by Holmes was stopped for no gain and Howard was faced with the crucial fourth down with 48 seconds left. The Bison's hopes ended when Haynes made his grab and was pushed out of bounds at the one.
Nichols completed 13 of 22 passes for 102 yards.
Fortunately for Howard, Liberty Baptist receivers dropped Basso's accurate throws all afternoon. Cole, who said he expected to gain more than 100 yards and totaled 125 on 23 carries, and Howard's Andrew Kelly (130 on 20) were the only bright spots in the first half as the teams played to a scoreless tie.
An interception by Howard freshman Doug Dickerson stopped a drive and Howard came back 77 yards in eight plays for its first touchdown. Holmes, who gained 108 yards on 23 carries, ran in from five yards out and Jon Nicholaisen's kick made it 7-0 with 8:19 to play in the third period.
The Flames came right back with a 70-yard, four-play scoring drive of their own. Basso completed passes of 24 and 25 yards to Earl Rector before hitting Kelvin Edwards on a 21-yard touchdown pass.
Mark DeMoss made his 79th consecutive conversion kick and it was 7-7, with 7:12 in the period.
After a Howard drive stalled at the Liberty Baptist 12, Nicholaisen kicked a 30-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead with 6:32 to play.
Howard hardly had time to celebrate before the Flames went 79 yards in three plays for the winning points.
"We were in trouble a lot in the second half," said Liberty Baptist Coach Tom Dowling. "That last stand was a big one."