It had all the makings of an exciting HBCU college football game: a matchup between two teams on winning streaks, a homecoming showdown and an overflow crowd.
And while the throng in Greene Stadium got their money’s worth, in the end, the overall talent and experience factor proved to be too much for the home team as Norfolk State University held off Howard University, 45-31, Saturday, Oct. 23.
The win counts as the fifth straight for the Norfolk State Spartans (5-2, 1-0 in the MEAC) while the upstart Howard Bison (2-5, 1-1 in the MEAC) had their two-game winning streak snapped.
The Bison, relatively young and inexperienced, had little margin for error which proved to be a factor as they committed two turnovers on interceptions to stop potential scoring drives.
“When you play a veteran team like that with a really good quarterback,” said Howard Coach Larry Scott alluding to the two interceptions, “those are the kind of mistakes that you just can’t afford to make.”
Feeling a sense of urgency, the Bison finally got on the board just before halftime with a Faraji Woodson 38-yard field goal, trailing 14-3 at intermission.
Norfolk State came out of the locker room strong to begin the second half, taking its first possession 76 yards on just six plays with Kevin Johnson capping it off for the touchdown. The Spartans built on their lead a little over two minutes later when Christian Ruffin returned a blocked Howard punt from four yards to build a 28-3 lead.
Anyone who has followed the Howard football team knows that they’re never out of a game and Saturday’s matchup proved to be no different. The Bison answered with a Quinton Williams one-yard dive at the 6:30 mark of the third period, making the score 28-10.
But the confident Spartans, who piled up over 500 yards of total offense, continued to keep the pressure on, adding a Josh Nardone 31-yard field goal after a long 14-play drive that used almost eight minutes off the clock.
That’s when the Bison woke up and began to initiate its comeback.
Ian Wheeler provided a much-needed spark when he took the Norfolk State kickoff, found a seam and weaved his way to a 96-yard TD to bring Howard closer, 31-17 and less than 14 minute left on the clock in the fourth quarter.
Wheeler’s run went down as the second-longest kick return for a TD in school history; Harvey Reed recorded a 99-yarder in 1984 and Curtis Chappell duplicated his efforts in 1985.
Suddenly, the Spartans sideline, who had already started the celebration, began to get anxious. Things became even more interesting after Wheeler scored again, this time on ah 18-yard run following a forced fumble.
Wheeler rushed for 89 yards and touchdown while accounting for 119 yards and a TD on kick returns.
Norfolk State gathered itself and calmly reeled 80 yards on eight plays with their senior quarterback, Juwan Carter at the helm, as they upped the margin to 38-24 with 6:23 on the clock.
Still, the Bison refused to wilt. Williams took his team 74 yards on only five plays in less than two minutes to creep to within five points, 38-31, with 4:26 still left on the clock. Williams completed the day 13 of 22 for 170 yards and a TD.
But the Spartans were not to be denied their first MEAC win as the unflappable Carter engineered a five-play, 76-yard drive that took almost three valuable minutes off the game clock. Carter, completed the day 26 of 29 for 332 yards and no interceptions. At one point, he completed 21 straight passes, a school record.
Sensing victory, Norfolk State amped up its veteran defense and sacked Williams on back-to-back plays to take over on downs and run out the clock.
“We fought all the way down to the end,” Carter said. “We just ran out of time and made too many critical mistakes early in the game.”