Howard University parlayed a rugged defense, some outstanding special teams play and the consistent running of senior running back Terrence Leffall into a 17-10 win over Florida A&M University (FAMU) in a key Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) game on Oct. 6 at Greene Stadium in Washington, D.C.
The stakes were high for both teams. The Rattlers (2-4, 2-1 MEAC) got on the board first when sophomore quarterback Damien Fleming put together a 10-play, 80-yard drive that was capped off with a beautifully thrown, seven-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Lenworth Lennon on a fade route in the deep right corner of the end zone.
During the drive, Fleming was able to extend several plays with his ability to run and find secondary receivers. Sophomore kicker Chase Varnadore split the uprights and Florida A&M led 7-0 with 3:20 left in the first quarter.
Howard (4-1, 3-0 MEAC) responded with a short drive of its own, until Florida A&M's defense stiffened and the Bison had to settle for a 48-yard field goal by freshman John Fleck at the 14:11 mark.
From there, the Howard defense, led by senior All-American Keith Pough, began to take over, constantly pressuring Fleming into errant throws and sacking him five times. The defense allowed the Bison to play a field position game, and the offense capitalized when sophomore quarterback Greg McGhee connected with junior tight end David Wilson from 31 yards to give Howard a 10-7 lead at the half.
“We did a good job of containing their receivers,” said Howard Coach Gary Harrell. “That is the strength of their team, so we put great emphasis on that.”
Florida A&M was able to tie the game at 10-10 early in the third quarter when Varnadore connected from 34 yards out with 12:45 left.
In a tightly-played game dictated by the defenses, special teams play suddenly became the deciding factor. Junior Brandon Flanagan made what turned out to be a pivotal play when he returned a FAMU punt 42 yards deep in Rattler territory. It took the Bison four plays to score as McGhee capped it off with a one-yard quarterback sneak with 3:36 in the third quarter.
“It all starts in practice,” sad McGhee, who played an efficient game in his first start of the season, completing 13 of 20 passes for 120 yards, a touchdown and the team's first interception of the season. “We just had to be patient and stay with the game plan. The defense and special teams were outstanding.”
The talented Rattler offense tested the Bison defense several times in the fourth quarter but each time, the defense would come up big and Fleck could not have waited for a better time to have the best game of his young career. The freshman from Indianapolis averaged almost 48 yards on six punts, with four landing inside the FAMU 20-yard line, including a career-best 60-yarder that pinned the Rattlers at their own one-yard line on their last possession.
Pough came into the game needing 3.5 tackles for losses to break the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly 1-AA) career record of 65. He now has 66. The 6-foot, 3-inch, 235-pound red-shirt senior tallied 17 tackles, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a recovered fumble in what was one of the best performances of his career.
“My thinking coming into the game was to not think about breaking or setting records,” said Pough. “It’s about team defense. I want to thank God, the defensive line, the defensive secondary and the coaches for this victory. It is an unbelievable feeling being 3-0 in the MEAC.”
Leffall, a 5-foot,10-inch senior from Stone Mountain, Ga did not find the end zone, but his ability to run between the tackles and set up second and third and short on several possessions, proved to be a key as he finished with 104 yards on 22 carries.
“It was great to be back out there,” said Leffall, who rushed for over 100 yards in his only other game this season. “I just wanted to come in and hit the ground running.”
“We ran the ball effectively, not like we wanted to,” Harrell said. “But it’s our strength and we will continue to commit to that. Terrence is our guy and we feel confident with him running the ball.”
Howard advanced to 4-1 overall and 3-0 in the MEAC for the first time in years, and will try to extend its success on Oct. 13 when they face another MEAC foe, North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, N.C.