Howard University's secondary made three major coverage mistakes that led to touchdown passes in its season opener at Jackson State last weekend. The Tigers passed for 373 yards, and quarterback Mark Washington completed a number of long passes in his team's 35-21 victory.
However, Howard Coach Steve Wilson was very happy with his secondary. Loaded with freshmen and sophomores, the defensive backfield improved in the second half Saturday night after surrendering 21 first-half points, leading Wilson to believe better days are ahead.
The Bison coaches knew senior cornerback Omar Evans would anchor the secondary. An all-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference selection last year, Evans again was solid on pass defense and made two tackles.
But the play of the freshmen and sophomores most pleased the coaching staff. Sophomore safety Brian McDonald shone in his first collegiate game, making two interceptions and eight tackles. Sophomore Chad Scott, who played only on special teams last year, had five tackles, and freshman safety Vontrae Long added three. Two more freshmen, Rashad Frazier and Serge Sejour, also helped.
Wilson and defensive backs coach Neal Downing said they knew that starting three very young players would have its moments. But Wilson said: "What we saw in the second half was the secondary start to wisen up. We just felt we could weather the storm."
Jackson State did most of its damage during the first half with deep post patterns, as the younger defensive backs often were fooled by option fakes. But as the game progressed, they did better at holding their positions and taking away the long pass.
Although the Tigers did complete two long touchdown passes in the second half, one -- a 63-yarder to Destry Wright -- was really about a seven-yard toss that Wright turned into a big play by squirting away from several tacklers.
"They made a lot of aggressive mistakes," Evans said of his teammates. "They want to learn and they're not afraid to compete."
McDonald played well from the start. With Jackson State leading 21-0 late in the first half and driving, McDonald intercepted a pass at the Bison 14. He returned it to the Jackson State 35 and was one block from scoring.
McDonald made another interception on the second half's first series, halting Jackson State's momentum and starting a Howard comeback.
"In the second half we came out more focused and more pumped up," McDonald said. "That's when everything started to click."
Downing said that despite the big gains, his players never lost confidence. He said they knew that facing Jackson State's four-wide receiver offense would be a tough way to start.
"They understand, and they're not down on themselves," Downing said. "We had three breakdowns in coverage, and that resulted in three touchdowns. That's not something they did to us, that's something we did to ourselves and it's something we can fix."
That's what the younger backs are working on this week, with Division I-AA's seventh-ranked team, two-time defending MEAC champion Hampton, coming up Saturday at RFK Stadium. The Pirates run the ball very well but they can throw, and this will be another test for Howard's young secondary.
"We think some of these growing pains are going to be there," Wilson said. "But [the good plays] are what leads us to think we're going to have some brighter days."