All week long, Howard head coach Gary Harrell labeled the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) opener against Norfolk State as a championship game.
In a contest that lasted almost four hours and had dramatic momentum swings, it all came down to a blocked extra-point attempt that helped the Bison escape with a big 37-36 win over the Spartans on Sept. 15 at Dick Price Stadium in Norfolk, Va.
“We came into this game knowing that it was going to be like a heavyweight championship fight,” said Harrell, in his second year as head coach with Howard. “To come out with a win in a game against the defending champs and pre-season favorite does a lot for this program.”
The game proved to be a tale of two halves as Howard (2-1 overall, 1-0 in the MEAC) came out and played one of its better first halves in recent seasons. Using the rushing game with senior running back Terrence Leffall, the Bison controlled the line of scrimmage on offense while the defense shut down the Spartan offense en route to a 23-0 halftime advantage.
Leffall, who missed the first two games of the season, set the tone early, rushing for 83 yards on 17 carries as Howard had its way with the Norfolk State defense, rushing for 150 yards and helped his team control the clock for over 19 minutes.
"In the first half, we moved the ball well and were able to stop them," explained Harrell. "We had control of the game and followed the game plan the way we drew it up."
The Bison defense, which had problems stopping the run in the first two games, was effective in shutting down the Spartans by limiting it to 84 total yards of offense in the first half.
But Norfolk State (2-1, 0-1 in the MEAC), which was coming off a thrilling 31-24, come-from-behind win over Liberty University last week, came alive in the second half and threatened to have a repeat performance.
Going to a no-huddle passing attack, the nationally ranked Spartans rallied on the passing of red-shirt junior quarterback Nico Flores, who passed for 320 yards and four touchdowns after intermission to help get his team back into the game.
"In the second half, the momentum shifted," said Harrell. "They made some adjustments and it helped them get back into the game. I was really disappointed in the way we played. We have to play smarter and be able to seal the deal if you want to be a championship team."
Flores, who had not thrown a TD this year, set up the game-tying field goal with five seconds remaining following a 13-play drive in which he converted on two fourth-down passes.
In the extra period, Howard got the ball first and capitalized on the opportunity when sophomore quarterback Greg McGhee capped off the short drive with a one-yard plunge. Howard junior placekicker Parker Munoz tacked on the all-important PAT to give Howard the 37-30 lead.
Then came the Spartans’ chance and they responded when red-shirt freshman running back Brendon Riddick capped off the drive with a four-yard run.
Someone had to make a play for the Bison and it was junior safety Julien David, who found an opening in Norfolk State's protection and thwarted the Spartan’s attempt to tie the game with a blocked attempt.
"We went with our block defense," explained David, who had six tackles, a forced fumble and the blocked PAT. "We knew that we needed a play at that point. Coach told me to go after it."
The Spartans outgained Howard 439 to 253 in total offense, but it was the Bison's special teams' play that offset the statistical advantage. Howard's sophomore receiver Rodney Tyson returned a kickoff 100 yards, senior DeCarlos Knight blocked a punt that set up a TD and sophomore Ibrahima Kebe and David each blocked PAT attempts.
"This shows that this team is resilient and is growing," said Harrell. "To come out and play the way we did in the first half and then lose momentum in the second half and still be able to finish in OT says a lot about what we are trying to accomplish. This win is very important to our program."