Everything went wrong for Howard University early in tonight's season opener against Jackson State. The Bison could not run the ball, had trouble stopping the Tigers' passing game and fell behind by 21 points by halftime en route to a 35-21 loss before 11,000 at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Howard dominated Jackson State last season, gaining 508 yards in a 34-8 rout. The Bison held Jackson State to 143 yards in that game, but the Tigers rolled up 260 yards in the first half tonight and took a 21-0 lead. However, junior quarterback Bobby Townsend got the offense moving.
Taking over for the record-setting Ted White, Townsend didn't look like a new starter. Townsend faced a Jackson State defense that came out trying to make him throw. He completed 20 of 49 passes for 309 yards, leading the Bison to a 21-point burst in the third quarter to slice the deficit to 28-21.
"At the beginning of the game, I was a little nervous," said Townsend, who threw three interceptions. "But I settled down in the second half, and we started moving the ball."
Howard Coach Steve Wilson enjoyed what Townsend showed him. Wilson was so concerned with the high heat and humidity that he didn't even bring the Bison out to warm up until about 12 minutes before game time.
Townsend warmed up little, and although the Bison fell behind early, he had a much stronger second half despite being sacked seven times overall. The running game finished with 75 yards but wasn't consistent, forcing Townsend to step up.
"He did things that Ted White did in his senior year," Wilson said. "I was there with John Elway in his first game, and I've never seen a quarterback hold his composure in his first game after getting down like that."
Townsend got better protection in the second half and used senior wide receiver Elijah Thurmon often. Thurmon tied a career high with 10 catches for 151 yards and played a big role in the comeback.
"As for Elijah Thurmon, how big can you be," Wilson said.
Jackson State quarterback Mark Washington completed only 13 of 33 passes but finished with 356 yards and four touchdowns as Jackson State racked up 514 yards of total offense.
The Howard defense didn't play poorly but gave up too many big plays. Washington threw touchdown passes of 2, 71, 79 and 63 yards and ran for a 28-yard score. Sylvester Morris made four catches for 125 yards and scored one touchdown.
Jackson State often lined up in a four-wide receiver set that caused Howard trouble, a situation that was made even worse when the Bison couldn't pressure Washington. The Tigers often got one-on-one coverage, and the Bison couldn't handle it at times.
The Bison couldn't stop the Tigers' wide receivers on deep patterns over the middle, as that pass was there most of the game. Howard did a better job of rushing Washington in the second half, which slowed the Jackson State offense, but the quarterback still got off some big plays that blunted the Bison rally.
Washington threw two touchdowns and ran for another in the first half as the Tigers took a 21-0 halftime lead. They held the Howard rushing game to just 19 yards on 18 carries in the first half.
But the Bison rallied in the second half. Jermaine Hutchinson ran for two short touchdowns in the third quarter, and Townsend ran for a 17-yard score as Howard sliced the deficit to 28-21 with 4 minutes 59 seconds left in the period.
Howard had three chances to tie the game in the fourth quarter but couldn't, and Jackson State stretched the lead to 35-21 with one more big play.
Washington flipped a short screen pass to Destry Wright, who appeared to be stopped after a short gain, but the running back broke free for a 63-yard touchdown with 8:38 left. Wright finished with 68 yards, but the Bison kept him quiet most of the night.