Howard University literally came within inches of its first victory of the football season yesterday. But South Carolina State rushed 437 yards at Howard Stadium and prevailed, 27-21.

The loss was the fourth straight this year for Howard, which attracted an overflow crowd estimated at 12,500 for its first home game of the season. The Bison (0-2 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) have lost 12 straight to South Carolina State (2-3, 2-1).

Lee DeBose's screen pass that apparently gave Howard a 48-yard touchdown with 1:31 remaining was nullifed when officials ruled receiver Tyrone Johnson's foot brushed the sideline at the 38.

The play was still good for a first down, but DeBose, a 5-foot-9 freshman making his first start, was sacked twice on the next four plays. Defensive end David Ammons pulled him down for a four-yard loss on fourth and 11 with 30 seconds left to prevent any chance the Bison had of their second home victory since 1982.

Howard had lost its first two games by a total score of 81-12, its first three by 104-26.

"If he (Johnson) stepped on the line, I couldn't tell, and I was standing right there," said Howard Coach Willie Jeffries, who a decade ago coached South Carolina State to national prominence at the Division I-AA level.

The Bulldogs totaled 633 yards in winning their second straight game.

Sophomore James Miller of South Carolina State carried 24 times for 189 yards. In his first start last week as a replacement for injured James Cunningham, he rushed for 156 yards against North Carolina A&T.

Gerald Foggie gained 145 on 18 carries and scored on a 53-yard trap through the middle to give the Bulldogs a 21-14 lead with 11:45 left in the first half.

Quarterback Charles Glaze, who ran for 84 yards and threw for 186, lofted a 67-yard pass to Cecil Holt to provide the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead with 5:04 to go in the first quarter.

DeBose, who finished with 109 yards rushing, established confidence in Howard's option offense. Despite being tackled, he threw a screen pass to Ronnie Epps three plays later that turned into a 60-yard touchdown that tied the score.

"Our offense is built around someone taking charge," said DeBose, who started because Leon Brown has an injured back. "The coach told me this week was my chance to do it. We are playing as a unit now because we want to build a winning tradition. I'm just disappointed we didn't pull it out."

The Bulldogs went ahead, 14-7, on their next possession when Steven Cobb scored on an 11-yard run, but DeBose came back to tie the score on Howard's next series on an 11-yard keeper around the left.

Glaze sneaked a yard on the second play of the fourth quarter for a 27-14 South Carolina State lead. Then DeBose and Brown, alternating at quarterback, took the Bison 77 yards in 10 plays. Brown threw for 35 and 18 yards to Curtis Chappell on the drive, and scored from the one with 10:33 remaining.

The Bison committed 14 turnovers and averaged 11 penalties in their first three losses. Yesterday, they had only one turnover and were penalized twice.

Jeffries, who accused his players of not hustling in the first two games and promised to weed out some, said yesterday's performance definitely showed they are improving.

"I thought we played really well," he said. "Being 0-4 is bad, but we feel we are doing some good things and we feel positive about it. Our young quarterback played exceptionally well, and our defense rose to the occasion when it had to. We are an inch away, but we have to grow that inch."