Jack Fleck was prepared to continue his punting career as a Division I walk-on — maybe close to home at Indiana or Ball State — when Howard University entered the picture late with a partial scholarship offer, part of Coach Gary Harrell’s offseason push to shore up his special teams.
Fleck, a freshman from Indianapolis, had already punted five times in Saturday’s Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference game against Morgan State when he received orders for a trick play that the team works on in practice almost every day. Instead of a kick, Fleck floated a 16-yard pass to reserve defensive back Jordan Monette to continue a drive that eventually ended in a third-quarter touchdown.
With its offense struggling throughout, Howard relied on a spark from its special teams to secure a 21-20 win on homecoming day in front of 10,305 fans. The Bison also blocked two kicks and clinched their first victory over Morgan State since 2004 after the Bears squandered the game-tying extra point attempt after a bad snap with 2 minutes 29 seconds left.
“When you’re young and kind of inexperienced [on] offense [and] defense, special teams has gotta be the phase that takes over that slack,” said Harrell, who was a special teams whiz during his playing career with the Bison in the early 1990s.
Howard (5-2, 4-1 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) needed its special teams to come through again after allowing allowing Morgan State backup quarterback Robert Council to scramble up the middle for a 35-yard touchdown run.
The Bears (3-4, 2-2) hadn’t missed an extra point in 20 tries this season, but this time the snap came in wild and kicker Ervin Gonzalez’s desperation pass was intercepted near the goal line by junior Tabrian Resby.
Sophomore Aquanius Freeman grabbed Morgan State’s ensuing onside kick attempt, and the Bison ran four plays to seal the win, running the final two seconds off the clock with a final quarterback kneel.
“We just wanted to keep fighting without taking any reps off,” Resby said of the failed extra point. “I kept my head up and tried to stay alert, look at the positive side and hope for something like that to happen.”
Morgan State breezed down field on a 12-play, 72-yard scoring drive to start the game, but both offenses bogged down after that. Harrell benched starting quarterback Greg McGhee for four series in the middle of the game in favor of backup Randy Liggins Jr.
The pair ended up combining to complete 9 of 22 passes for 110 yards and one touchdown — a 17-yard strike by Liggins to freshman Jonathan Booker on the final play of the first half.
Those offensive woes were of lesser importance after halftime thanks to the Bison’s special teams. Fleck’s trick play set up McGhee’s one-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown, and Howard took a 14-point lead late in the third quarter when senior Terrence Leffall scored two plays after freshman Devin Rollins deflected a punt coming out of the Bison end zone.
Howard — which also brought in long-snapper Matthew Poulin on scholarship this season — could finally celebrate when Morgan State’s comeback effort came up short by an extra point.
“We work hard at practice and work hard on our game plan throughout the week,” said Leffall, who had a season-high 134 rushing yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. “It’s a good feeling to know the ball’s bouncing our way like that from time to time.”