DOVER, DEL., NOV. 21 -- Over the last four years, Coach Willie Jeffries built one of the nation's top Division I-AA offensive football teams at Howard University, but he has been around the game long enough to know glossy statistics go only so far.

"You win championships with defense," he said after Howard's 20-ranked Bison stopped Delaware State on four plays inside their 8 in the last two minutes to claim a 12-7 victory and win their first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship since the league was formed in 1971.

Howard finished the regular season at 9-1 overall and 5-0 in the MEAC. Jeffries and his players will spend Sunday afternoon waiting for the NCAA committee to decide if it will invite Howard to the 16-team Division I-AA tournament, which will begin next weekend.

No. 14 Delaware State, whose only sustained drive was its last one, starting from its 20, finished the season 7-3 and 4-1. In the 20-degree temperature, snow flurries and 25-mph gusts that left the wind chill factor near 5 at packed Alumni Stadium, Delaware State lost not only the game and the league title, but virtually any chance of a playoff berth.

"I think we proved our point to the whole world," said Howard senior tailback Harvey Reed, who rushed for 147 yards and touchdowns of six and 39 yards. "People were saying how we didn't play anybody all season. Well, we just beat Delaware State, which was ranked No. 14 and is a good football team. If they don't let us in the playoffs now, it won't be because we don't deserve it. It will just plain mean they don't want us."

The weather affected Howard more dramatically than Delaware State. Howard has 27 players from Florida and had intended to pass frequently. Howard had to stick to rushing, but still seemed likely to wrap things up with about seven minutes left when it reached first and goal at the Delaware State 1. The Hornets, however, stopped three straight dives, then the wind blew John Harvell's 22-yard field goal attempt wide left.

Behind sophomore quarterback Darren Felton, who was making his first start, and fullback Terance Hoover, who had been held in check much of the day, the Hornets found one last burst. Felton threw a 38-yard pass to Michael Delon, and Hoover, the nation's No. 4 I-AA rusher, carried eight straight times.

On first down at the Howard 8, tackle Eric Moore stopped Hoover for a two-yard loss. The Hornets then went to John Stone, who gained six yards to the 4, but Hoover was then dropped for a one-yard loss by tackle James Moore. On fourth down, Felton rolled right, but when hurried by safety James Moses coming as part of a double blitz, he threw the ball out of the end zone.

"It was a tough series," said James Moore, who earlier this week predicted Howard would win, 13-7. "But during a timeout, we said, 'If the Wheels of Steel {Howard's nickname for its defensive line} play like they can, we will win this football game.' Now we know we can beat just about anybody."

Jeffries said stopping Hoover on those two plays was key. Hoover finished with 122 yards rushing and scored a one-yard third-quarter touchdown that gave the Hornets a short-lived 7-6 lead.

"When we stuffed Hoover on those plays," said Jeffries. "We made them think enough to get away from giving it to him. We figured they might bootleg on that fourth down, sent the double blitz and made him {Felton} rush his pass."

Howard's offense, which came into the game leading the nation with 394 yards per game rushing and was No. 2 with 519 yards per game in total offense, was held to 272 yards -- all rushing. The Bison scored both touchdowns on solid individual efforts.

Reed's six-yard touchdown with 22 seconds left in the half came on a pitch right, which he dropped.

"All I wanted to do was scoop it out of bounds," said Reed. "But it was all in the grace of God because the ball bounced right back up to me and there was no one in front of me."

Howard failed to run in the conversion attempt allowing Delaware State to take the lead on Hoover's touchdown. It was set up by Derek Andrews' interception at the Howard 16 of a poorly thrown Lee DeBose pass.

DeBose atoned for the mistake late in the third period after a shanked punt gave the Bison possession at the Delaware State 38. After Reed lost one yard, DeBose went left on the option. As he was hit, he managed to pitch the ball to Reed who raced down the sideline for the score.

"When the man hit me, I heard Harvey yelling to pitch," said DeBose, who rushed for 64 net yards on 26 carries. "I had my pitch arm free and was able to get it to him."

Jeffries, who won five straight MEAC titles as coach at South Carolina State, called this championship special.

"The first championship I won at South Carolina State came on this same field, but I didn't want to tell our kids that," said Jeffries. "But this is much more satisfying than any other game I have coached because I have never seen a group of kids so happy to win as I saw today. I think we proved to the skeptics today that we can beat a good football team, and not just some Division II and NAIA schools. We expect to be playing next Saturday."

Howard 0 6 6 0 12 Delaware St. 0 0 7 0 7

H -- Reed 6 run (run failed)

DS -- Hoover 1 run (Parkinson kick)

H -- Reed 39 run (run failed)

A -- 5,500

Howard Delaware St. First downs 16 16 Rushes-yards 60-272 59-196 Passing yards 0 89 Return yards 28 9 Passing 0-3-1 5-17-1 Punts-average 4-27 4-27 Fumbles-lost 3-1 2-1 Penalties-yards 10-73 10-80 Time

RUSHING -- Howard: Reed 23-147, DeBose 26-64, Epps 10-47, T. Johnson 1-14. Delaware St.: Hoover 27-122, Cas

PASSING -- Howard: DeBose 0-3-1, 0 yards. Delaware St.: Felton 5-17-1, 89.

RECIEVING -- Howard: None. Delaware St.: Riddick 1-9, Egerton 2-18, Stone 1-24, DeRon 1-38.