The four-year rebuilding program of Howard University football coach Willie Jeffries gets its final inspection today in Dover, Del., when the No. 20 Bison take on No. 14 Delaware State for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship and a possible invitation to the NCAA Division I-AA postseason tournament.
Jeffries inherited a team that was 1-9 before his arrival and managed a total of only six victories in his first two seasons. Today at 1 p.m., before an expected overflow crowd at Alumni Stadium, Howard will be playing one of the most important games in the school's 95 years of football. The Bison are seeking to end the infamous distinction of being the only active member of the 18-year-old MEAC never to have won a football title.
In other games today, Virginia (6-4), winner of its last three, is in Raleigh for a noon game with North Carolina State (4-6). The Cavaliers are expecting a bid to the All-American Bowl, win or lose.
Quarterback Dan Henning will start for Maryland (4-6) in its 2 p.m. game in Nashville, Tenn., against Vanderbilt (3-6). Maryland Coach Joe Krivak hopes his team can finish a disappointing season on a positive note if Henning, who has not started the last three games, can repeat his performance against Vanderbilt last year when he threw for 315 yards in a 35-21 Maryland victory.
Howard (8-1 overall, 4-0 in the MEAC) has much more at stake if it can repeat last year's 27-18 season-closing victory over Delaware State (7-2, 4-0). Despite winning 15 of its last 16, and outscoring its last three opponents by a combined 149-10, Howard has been unable to impress the Division I-AA poll committee.
The same committee extends at-large invitations to the 16-team I-AA tournament, which begins next week, and even with a victory today, Howard could be without a berth. Some common opponents do not think Howard will have much of a reason to be concerned by tonight.
"Both teams have very good offenses, but I think Delaware State will win because they have a better overall defense," said the MEAC's leading tackler, defensive back Julian Perkins of Morgan State, whose team was beaten by the Hornets, 30-7, and by Howard, 62-0.
Larry Little, the Bethune-Cookman coach and former Miami Dolphins offensive lineman whose team lost to Howard, 58-51, and Delaware State, 45-0, sees it as more of a tossup. "These are two explosive football teams, but if there is an edge, it is because Delaware State is playing at home," said Little.
Each team relies on the run. Howard leads the nation with 394 yards rushing per game and is second in scoring with 44 points per game. Tailback Harvey Reed is the top individual I-AA rusher (152 yards per game) and scorer (12.2 points per game).
Delaware State, which runs out of the wing-T, is fifth in rushing with 265 yards per game and third in scoring with 38 points per game. Fullback Terance Hoover averages 119 yards rushing, but the Hornets may bench quarterback John Lane, who has started all season, in favor of little-used sophomore Darren Felton. The Howard defense has improved over the year. How much will be seen today.
"We play with a little more discipline and read the keys better now than we used to," said Howard defensive tackle James Moore. "All season, everyone has overlooked our defense, and it has given us something to prove. In fact, I think we'll see a low-scoring ballgame, maybe about 13-7, but we don't care by how much we win this time. All we want to do is get in the playoffs and have a chance to play for the national championship."
Maryland is playing only for pride, and much of that is individual.
"We can't have a winning season, and we can't go to a bowl game," said senior linebacker Kevin Walker. "All that's left is our own personal goals."
Vanderbilt has not been overpowering in the Southeastern Conference, either. The Commodores began the season with a victory over Memphis State, then lost six straight, including a 35-31 defeat to Duke. However, they have since beaten Rutgers and Kentucky.
Offensively, Maryland will face a complex defense that sometimes brings eight or nine men to the line. That is part of the reason for starting the more experienced Henning, who will probably have to audible frequently. Playing his last collegiate game, Henning will need to get yards through the air. The running game, which has been at the bottom of the ACC all year, will be without fullback Dennis Spinelli, who will probably require arthroscopic knee surgery.
Tight end Ferrell Edmunds (pulled groin) will probably start, but Maryland will be without nose guard Bob Arnold (broken arm).
While Maryland is already guaranteed its first losing season since 1981 (after which Jerry Claiborne left), Virginia is in position to finish second in the conference, win seven games and go to a bowl. Still, Virginia Coach George Welsh is concerned.
"My stomach tells me we've got another game coming, and we've got to get ready," said Welsh. "I'm too old for celebrating and carrying on."