Howard's three-game winning streak and the fragile confidence that accompanied it were not enough to help the Bison today as they reverted to their early season form in losing to Delaware State, 38-16, at Alumni Stadium.
Howard (4-7, 0-4 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) could have ended its season in upbeat fashion with a victory over the Hornets, a team it last beat in 1982. Instead, Delaware State (9-2, 4-0) overwhelmed Howard behind sophomore quarterback Mike Walker's 221 yards passing and two rushing touchdowns to claim its first MEAC title.
"We reverted back to where we were at the beginning of the season," said Howard Coach Willie Jeffries.
The Bison turned the ball over four times and were further demoralized by a fake punt that Terrence Hoover carried 47 yards for a touchdown with 3:32 to play.
"We really didn't expect Delaware State to be this good, but we didn't expect to play this bad, either," Jeffries said. "We just made so many mistakes. I wouldn't feel so bad if we'd lost and played well, but not to the tune of 38-16."
Delaware State was ripe for an upset. The Hornets repeatedly hurt themselves on offense, accruing 110 yards in penalties, including three straight on one third-quarter possession, and carried only a 10-0 lead into halftime.
But by scoring 21 points in the third quarter, including time-consuming drives of 80 and 63 yards on its first two possessions, Delaware State put the game out of reach.
"We just weren't ready to play," admitted Howard nose guard Billy Dores. "This should have been a big game for us, too, but we helped them out too much."
The type of day Howard was in for became apparent early in the first quarter. After falling behind, 7-0, on a one-yard run by Walker, the Bison responded with a 69-yard pass from Leon Brown to Tony McLain on third and 20 from their 26, leaving the ball just three yards from the end zone.
But after two running plays failed to produce a touchdown, Brown attempted a pass to tight end Jimmie Johnson in the end zone, only to have it intercepted by free safety Joe Burton and returned 46 yards. That, combined with a 15-yard holding penalty, left the ball at Howard's 39 and little doubt as to which team was in command.
Nevertheless, outstanding play by Dores (eight tackles) and the rest of the Howard defensive line managed to limit the Hornets' first-half running attack to 91 yards.
Offensively, Howard's woes were many. The instability at quarterback that has plagued the team all season continued as Brown and Lee DeBose split time with equal ineffectiveness. Brown, a sophomore, started but lasted just three possessions. DeBose, who completed 12 of 35 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown, had a third-quarter pass intercepted by linebacker Kevin Bryant, who returned it from the 10 for a score.
"We had been playing together lately," said DeBose, who was hindered by a knee injury suffered against Morgan State last week. "But today we just fell apart."
In addition, Howard's running game could produce only 101 yards, gross, led by Ronnie Epps' 36, of which 24 came on one play. Howard did manage two touchdowns, although both came in the fourth quarter, when the outcome no longer was in doubt. Still, Keith Wilkins' one-yard run and DeBose's 15-yard pass to Johnson did give Jeffries some measure of hope.
"I really feel this program is going to blossom," said Jeffries. "Maybe not today, but soon."