The University of Rhode Island spoiled Willie Jeffries' debut as Howard coach today, building a big lead off Bison mistakes and winning, 31-21, in the opener for both teams at Meade Stadium.

Howard, which lost its last seven games last season, trailed, 28-6, following a four-yard touchdown run by URI's Richard Kelly with 8:56 to play in the game.

"I thought we had a very comfortable lead at that point," the Rams' coach, Bob Griffin, said. "Then strange things happened: We made a misplay and they made a couple of good ones, and they were right back in the game."

In addition to starting 12 freshmen and sophomores -- compared to URI's 21 juniors and seniors -- Howard lost starting quarterback Brian Sloan early in the first period when he was tackled hard on a running play. He returned in the second period but was hit hard again and left with badly bruised ribs. His status for Saturday's home opener against Hampton is undetermined.

With Sloan out, Jeffries went with freshman Leon Brown. After a shaky beginning, a fumble and two-of-14 passing in the first half, Brown gained composure and helped the Bison close to 28-21 and had his team at the URI 43 with nine minutes to play.

"I didn't expect to play that soon," said Brown, who completed six of 26 passes for 82 yards and two interceptions. "I was rushing myself and making mistakes. Once I got adjusted, I played with more intensity."

Rhode Island helped the Bison a little. Howard had closed to 28-12 after a four-yard scoring run by Harvey Reed with 14:28 left in the final period.

On the ensuing kickoff, the Rams' returner, Richard Kelly, first decided to stay in the end zone, then decided to come out. He eventually kneeled with one foot in and one foot out of the end zone, giving Howard a safety and making the score 28-14.

"Just a communication problem," said Kelly, who rushed 96 yards and scored once. "I wasn't sure what to do."

URI punted and Doug Dickerson returned to the Rams' 43. After a 15-yard penalty moved the ball to the 28, Brown threw a touchdown pass to wide-open Kevin Watkins.

Jon Nicholaisen, who earlier missed on an extra point and a 34-yard field goal try, made the kick and it was 28-21, with 13:39 to play.

"They didn't quit," Jeffries said. "The defense played very well and in the fourth quarter they stopped our option game. Just a couple of plays hurt us."

The bigest play turned out to be a botched option call on third and two at the URI 43. Brown was about to be hit as he rolled to the left. He had to pitch out early and a fumble ensued. Howard recovered but had to punt.

"I had to rush and pitch the ball out a little too low," Brown said.

Jeffries defended the call, saying the play had been gaining yards all quarter.

The Rams then worked almost seven minutes off the clock before settling for a 31-yard field goal by Paul Stringfellow.

After trailing, 6-0, URI scored twice within a two-minute span in the first quarter and again in the second quarter to take a 21-6 advantage at intermission.

Howard began the game in a rush. Dickerson returned the kickoff 55 yards to the 40 and, five plays later, Sloan scored on a eight-yard run.

The Rams' quarterback, Bob Ehrhardt, was intercepted on his team's first possession by Phillip Lee, who ran to the 17. But URI held and Nicholaisen missed a field goal try.

Later in the sloppily played first quarter, Nicholaisen's wind-blown punt wobbled out of bounds at the Howard 29. On third and four, Ehrhardt threw a short pass to tight end Brian Forster, who made it into the end zone against the poor-tackling Bison. The extra point gave the Rams the lead, 7-6.

URI stopped Howard again and Nicholaisen's high, lazy punt was fielded by Tony Hill at his 31. He slipped inside two defenders and ran untouched for the score.

Following a fumble by Howard's Andrew Kelly, the Rams' reserve quarterback, Mike Cassidy, completed a five-play drive with a 17-yard scoring pass to Dameon Reilly. The Rams were up, 21-6.

Excluding its touchdown, Howard crossed midfield only once in the first half.