Most football teams believe one key to success is protecting its quarterback. At Howard University, however, the worse quarterback Lee DeBose feels on Sunday, the better the Bison probably did on Saturday.

Howard, 6-1 and ranked 20th in Division I-AA, travels to Baltimore Saturday for a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference game against Morgan State having won 14 of its last 15 games. The Bison are rushing for 104 more yards per game (395) than any other I-AA team, are second in total offense (513 yards per game) and are second in scoring (41.9 points per game).

Although tailback Harvey Reed has been getting most of the headlines as the nation's leading rusher (146 yards per game), it is the development of DeBose, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound junior from Gainesville, Fla., that has made Howard's dive-option offense work.

Howard was transformed from a team that lost seven of 18 under Coach Willie Jeffries's system to its current form when DeBose learned to hold onto the ball until he was about to get hit, and then pitch it.

That "skill" leaves the quarterback open to be hit by charging defenders, but if he lures the defenders toward him, the tailback getting the pitch usually has only one player to beat.

"A guy who can take a hit and still get rid of the football is not a guy you find walking down the street every day," said Howard quarterback coach Kermit Blount, who was an outstanding option quarterback at Winston-Salem State in 1977 and 1978. "Lee has gotten to the point where a lot of teams come into games against us not so much concerned about stopping Harvey as they are about getting to Lee."

DeBose was rushed into the Howard system midway through his freshman season. He had his troubles: pulling the ball in too soon and ending up keeping it; pitching it too soon, and allowing defenders time to change direction and nail Reed; or holding on just long enough for defenders to affect the pitch.

Now, more often than not, defenders who think they have gotten to DeBose pile off only to find Reed, reserve tailback Fred Killings (7.0 yards per carry) or fullback Ronnie Epps (7.8 yards per carry) running downfield with the ball.

"Once a defensive end commits, it is pretty hard for him to change direction," said DeBose. "He has me pretty much wrapped up and can't do much about the guy who gets the pitch. Sometimes, two guys are supposed to come right at me and we'll do something quick and Harvey or Ronnie will be right by them."

Last season, DeBose rushed for 539 yards on 201 carries. With 281 yards on 59 carries this season, he will hardly approach last year's figures; but he hurts more the day after the game -- and knows he has done his job better.

"Every Sunday morning, I am in that whirlpool," said DeBose, who would rank as the nation's fifth-leading efficiency passer if he had enough passes to qualify for the rankings. "Coach Blount has taught all the quarterbacks to 'get soft' before getting hit, which means you try to prepare yourself and lean back and go down. Every now and then, I do get hurt, but I jump up right away to not allow the defenders to see me hurt. The licks don't hurt as much if you are winning."

DeBose calls about 80 percent of his own plays, and will audible on about 50 percent depending how defenses are aligned. DeBose occasionally comes up to the line and will wink at a particular opponent.

"It's just a psychological thing," he said. "Those guys are out there concentrating on trying to hurt No. 17 {DeBose}. I just try and hint that a play might go one way and let them think about it. The coaches told me to have fun out there, and I am."

Howard Athletic Director William Moultrie received a letter last week notifying him the Bison are under consideration for a postseason playoff bid . . . The Bison are applying to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the NCAA for medical redshirt approval for senior nose guard Billy Dores, who severely sprained an ankle in the third game this season. The Bison already have applied for similar status for senior wide receiver Curtis Chappell, who was injured the same game. A special waiver is needed in both cases because rules allow a player to be in only two games (20 percent of Howard's schedule) and still be eligible to be redshirted.