When Howard football Coach Gary Harrell arrived at RFK Stadium for Saturday’s Nation’s Football Classic against Morehouse College, he still harbored thoughts of redshirting true freshman quarterback Jamie Cunningham.
When Harrell stepped up to the dais for his news conference following an improbable 30-29 victory over the Maroon Tigers, he named the youngster his starter next week against Rutgers.
With sophomore starter Greg McGhee ineligible and backup Randy Liggins Jr. struggling, Harrell trusted the last signal-caller left on the roster to lead the Bison in his first college game. Cunningham responded with a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives, finishing his debut by connecting with junior tight end David Wilson on a 13-yard fade pass for the go-ahead touchdown with 22 seconds left.
“My coaches always tell me, ‘Stay calm, stay cool, there’s no pressure,’ ” said Cunningham, who finished 10 of 11 for 79 yards with one touchdown. “We all get first team reps, so it’s nothing new, and when the opportunity came, I was ready for it.”
Howard (1-0) entered Harrell’s second season eager to build off its five wins last year — a four-win improvement over 2010. The Bison — who had McGhee and several others declared ineligible for the game as a result of an ongoing NCAA investigation into improper textbook distribution — responded by winning a back-and-forth contest that featured three lead changes in the final three minutes.
With Cunningham under center, Howard went ahead 24-23 on sophomore Aquanius Freeman’s two-yard touchdown run with 2 minutes 17 seconds left, but on the first play of the next drive, Morehouse junior quarterback Donnay Ragland hit freshman Devon Mann with a short pass to the right. The wide receiver found room to race along the sideline untouched for the deflating, 72-yard go-ahead score.
After a penalty on the kickoff, Howard began its final drive in Maroon Tigers territory and Cunningham showed poise, slowly moving the Bison into possession as the clock ticked down. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound quarterback spiked the ball after a completion over the middle put Howard at the Morehouse 13-yard line.
On the next play, Cunningham lofted a high fade pass to his right. The Morehouse defender lost track of the ball in flight and staggered away from the play as Wilson leapt up for the touchdown.
When Morehouse’s last-second Hail Mary attempt fell to the turf, Howard could finally celebrate its second straight win over its longtime rival.
“We didn’t want to play Jamie today, but now we saw what we have in Jamie Cunningham,” Harrell said. “I feel really good about him. I feel good putting him in the game, and last week [I wouldn’t have] felt good putting Jamie Cunningham in.”
Liggins and Cunningham didn’t have much to do with Howard’s preseason optimism. McGhee was the only quarterback to attempt a pass during the team’s turnaround campaign, and he developed into a dual-threat signal caller on the way to Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference rookie of the year honors.
McGhee was in uniform for Saturday’s contest and wore a headset on the sideline when the team was on offense as his backups sparked the victory. Liggins — a part-time starter in 2010 — threw a pair of first-half touchdown passes before leaving the game after losing a third-quarter fumble. Harrell said he replaced Liggins because he lost his composure on the sideline after the mistake.
Cunningham had lost out to Liggins in practice leading up to the game, but he had just enough time left to craft a memorable debut. He’ll make his first career start at Rutgers next week and hopes to hold the job until McGhee is eligible to return on Sept. 29 against Savannah State.
“It feels real good inside — it feels real good,” Cunningham said, tapping his chest. “But I can’t celebrate on it too much because we’ve got to go out and do it again next week.”