Most people around the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference thought that if Howard succesfully high-stepped through the early portion of its football schedule, the Bison would go to Dover on the final weekend of the season and lock things up against Delaware State.
The Hornets, it appeared, could not be much more than spoilers by mid-November. They had lost the MEAC's top two defensive players, they were so desperate for leadership that they moved top wide receiver John Lane to quarterback and they were going to plug the middle of their defense with a converted fullback.
Long the doormat of the MEAC and a prized homecoming opponent, after four straight winning seasons Delaware State appeared headed back downstairs by finishing 1986 with three consecutive defeats.
"To tell you the truth, I honestly thought we were going to go undefeated this season," said fullback Terrance Hoover, whose 119 yards per game rushing are the main reason the Hornets are 7-2 and ranked No. 14 going into Saturday's meeting with No. 20 Howard (8-1).
Delaware State, like Howard 4-0 in the MEAC, is hoping to emerge with its second football championship since the conference was formed in 1971. Howard is the only active member never to have won a football title. Saturday's winner will put itself in position to be invited to the 16-team Division I-AA tournament.
Despite its past, the Bison were expected to be in position to claim the championship Saturday because their successful rebuilding program had 20 starters returning from a team that won its last seven games in 1986, including a 27-18 season-ender over the Hornets.
But Delaware State turned out to be the biggest surprise in a league in which Howard's only anticipated competition was defending champion North Carolina A&T.
After an opening 34-13 loss at Boise State, the Hornets won seven straight and appeared to be a postseason participant whether they won or lost to Howard. A 22-20 loss to Arkansas-Pine Bluff of the NAIA last weekend may have changed that.
"I think if we'd won that game, we would have gotten a bid, regardless," said third-year Delaware State coach Bill Collick. "Now our backs are to the wall and we have to beat Howard, but it is times like this that you find out what your kids are made of. I hope that loss woke our kids up."
No one has had to wake up Delaware State's defense, which allowed Arkansas-Pine Bluff only one touchdown and five field goals. The Hornets are allowing only 104 yards per game rushing. Howard's Harvey Reed leads Division I-AA with 152 yards per game.
Defensive ends Robert Presbury (11 1/2 sacks) and Lybrant Robinson (10 sacks) are likely all-MEAC selections, as is middle linebacker Eric Wainwright, who transferred from Penn State as a fullback.
"We were pretty set at running back, but he was such a great athlete, we needed him on the field," said Collick.
Lane, perhaps the Hornets' best athlete, may be off the field Saturday. After starting the first eight games, the 40 percent passer was yanked early in last weekend's loss. Mike Walker, who started occasionally the previous two years, was also ineffective, leading to sophomore Darren Felton's first significant action of the year. Felton may start against Howard.
"There will be no loss of anything if Darren plays," said Hoover. "We have experienced people blocking who will not let anything happen to him. In fact, our offensive line is playing great. If there is a bunch to go to war with right now, I want them on my side. This could be the last game for our seniors, and we want to go out with a big bang."
Nose tackle Billy Dores and wide receiver Curtis Chappell, key factors in Howard putting together its longest winning streak in 56 years, may play against Delaware State after missing the past five games with injuries.
Dores suffered a severely sprained ankle and Chappell fractured a wrist in Howard's 31-22 victory over South Carolina State on Sept. 26.
Howard had applied to the MEAC and NCAA for medical redshirts for Chappell and Dores in the hopes the two seniors would be granted an extra year of eligibility. Yesterday, Coach Willie Jeffries said both were practicing this week and would play Saturday if they could contribute.
"They would all rather play in this game and be part of this than come back next year," said Jeffries.