Learning how to win football games has proven a painful experience for the Howard Bison.
The Bison are 2-4 (1-2 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) heading into Saturday's game at North Carolina A&T, but they easily could be 5-1 or even 6-0. They have fallen short after comebacks or squandered leads in all four losses.
Howard Coach Steve Wilson said during the preseason that he expected growing pains with this team, one of the youngest of his 11-year tenure at the school. Wilson understands what is causing the penalties, mistakes and mental errors, and overall he still likes what he has seen.
However, the Bison must win their last five games to have a chance to play in the Heritage Bowl, which includes the best MEAC team not participating in the Division I-AA playoffs.
"You have to experience losing to learn [how to win]," Wilson said. "Those kids are getting experience, and we're still in the running for the Heritage Bowl. We're a good football team, but we just don't have anything to show for it yet."
In the season opener, Howard trailed Jackson State 21-0 at halftime, then scored 21 points in the third quarter to close within seven. But the offense suddenly went flat, and the Bison missed on three chances to drive for a tying touchdown.
One week later, a missed extra-point try cost the Bison a tie at the end of regulation against Hampton. Two weeks ago, while clinging to a three-point lead in the final minutes against Florida A&M, the Bison could not make a first down and gave the ball back to the Rattlers. They tied the game in the final moments, then won in overtime.
Last Saturday, Howard raced to a 27-7 first-half lead against Towson, then surrendered 35 straight points and lost, 49-33.
The Bison "have a lot of talent, and it just takes time to mesh the talent together," Towson Coach Gordy Combs said. "When you play the quality of competition they're playing on a weekly basis [Jackson State, Hampton and Florida A&M were ranked when Howard played them], it's tough, especially when you're playing so many young players."
The Bison often use seven freshmen on defense and use a number of inexperienced players on offense. And Wilson knows how much time it takes for young players to learn by making mistakes.
Fifth-year senior middle linebacker Rhoan Hill has seen this before. He started on the 1996 team that won the black college national championship. Howard went 9-2 that season and won the Heritage Bowl. But Hill also started as a freshman the previous season, when Howard was 6-5 and struggled throughout.
Hill sees plenty of similarities between this season's squad and the 1995 team.
"We used to give up a lot of points and a lot of yardage then also," Hill said. "Towards the end of that season, we started playing better after we started playing together and feeling each other out."
Offensive line coach Fred Dean said this team also reminds him of the 1992 team. Howard went 7-4 that season, with the losses coming by a total of 26 points. The Bison then went 11-1 the following season, winning the black college national title and making the school's only appearance in the Division I-AA playoffs.
"We were making the same type of mistakes in 1992 that we're making this season," Dean said. "We couldn't quite get over the hump against the big teams."
Wilson said one reason this season's team has a similar problem is the lack of an experienced quarterback. Bobby Townsend, a junior who is in his first season as a starter, has shown his ability several times, most notably while leading a fourth-quarter comeback in a 31-27 victory over Bethune-Cookman on Sept. 18, but he is still struggling at times.