After midnight on Thursday night, Antwon Chisholm walked slowly off the field at Municipal Stadium, pads off and head bowed.
He looked like a football player who'd absorbed dozens of body blows, and indeed, he and his Hampton University team had — none more crushing than the final one.
The Pirates had what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown pass on the final play of the game erased after a controversial replay review to lose 35-31 at Bethune-Cookman in a game full of momentum swings and offensive fireworks.
"It was devastating," said Chisholm, who had 115 yards (62 rushing, 53 receiving) of Hampton's total of 417. "We drove all the way down the field knowing we had it, knowing we were going to win, because we knew they weren't going to stop our offense. It came down to a decision where they said we didn't hold onto the ball."
On fourth down from the Wildcats' 12-yard line, with four seconds left, HU quarterback David Legree — nearly sacked by blitzing defenders on the previous play — got off a quick release to Isiah Thomas in the end zone. Thomas' apparent catch — which would have been his fifth of the night for 106 yards and his second touchdown — sent jubilant Pirates rushing onto the field while Wildcat players sank to their knees.
But then the replay booth — first used in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in Hampton's win against Florida A&M on Sept. 8 — decided it wanted another look. A few minutes later, the announcement came: The review had determined Thomas did not maintain possession as he hit the ground.
"I kind of got hit when I threw the ball, but I seen him catch the ball clean, and it looked like he took two steps in the end zone," said Legree, who'd hit Thomas on a 50-yard first-quarter TD as part of his 14-for-29, 225-yard passing night. "Maybe I didn't see it as good as I thought I did.
"I don't know if we can review it. I hope that we can. I hope that Coach Rose does. But if we can't, then I guess we just came up on the short end of the stick. I know for a fact this team wasn't better than us."
HU coach Donovan Rose said late Thursday night that he planned to take some sort of action.
"Hopefully we can protest it," said Rose, who said no replay was available on the field and that he was not given any further explanation about the call. "I don't know what we need to do, but I'm definitely not going to just let it go. I didn't want the game to come down like that."
MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas said Friday afternoon that his office was reviewing plays from the game and discussing them with game and conference officials. He said that his office would issue a statement when the review is complete. He offered no timetable on when that might occur, nor would he speculate on the possibility of overturning a result.
Bethune-Cookman coach Brian Jenkins said he never thought Thomas had possession of the ball and was prepared to challenge the play.
"I went straight to the ref and said I didn't think he caught it," Jenkins said. "Thank God for replay."
The contentious ending — along with a combined 22 penalties for 176 yards — marred an entertaining game that showcased the 10th-best scoring offense in the country in the Wildcats, who came into the game averaging 40.5 points per game, and an improved Pirates attack scoring 11.2 more points per game than in 2010. It also may have gone a long way toward deciding the MEAC title in a game between the defending co-conference champions, Bethune-Cookman, and a Hampton team that already had knocked of FAMU, which shared last year's crown with the Wildcats.
Bethune-Cookman (2-1, 1-1 MEAC) jumped out to a 14-3 lead, but HU (2-2, 1-1 MEAC) fought back. Legree's deep ball to Thomas was the first of three unanswered Pirates touchdowns that gave Hampton a 24-14 lead at halftime.
The Wildcats took their first drive of the third quarter 65 yards in 10 plays to pull within three, then wrested the lead back on Rodney Scott's 33-yard catch-and-run with 37 seconds to play in the third quarter. But HU responded again when Daryell Walker, out of Bethel High, tipped Jamarr Robinson's pass into the arms of Jeremy Jermin, who rambled 20 yards for a 31-28 Pirates lead with 9:15 left in the game.
That advantage lasted until Eddie Poole caught a 13-yard TD from Jackie Wilson, who split time at quarterback with Robinson, with 2:50 left. Wilson's pass went through HU cornerback Kambrell McGee's arms into Poole's hands for what turned out to be the game-winning score.
"We've got some things that are positive," Rose said. "We'll just work on the little, small things, so we won't have to be always going down to the wire."
HU goes into its bye week with some particularly painful film to watch before playing host to Princeton on Oct. 8.
"This team is resilient," said Legree, who wasn't much in the mood to talk about moral victories for an offense that outgained the prolific Wildcats by three yards and ran six more plays. "… We don't need motivation. The (MEAC championship) ring is the motivation. Is it going to make us play harder? No, not really. I feel like we played a hard game. From start to finish, I feel like we played hard. We played fast.
"We're not worried about any team that lines up against us. It doesn't matter who lines up against us. I feel like we're a great team."
The Pirates' response to Thursday's heartbreak will test that opinion.
NOTES: Chisholm, who saw limited action in HU's 45-42 loss at Old Dominion on Sept. 17, seemed slow to get up at times Thursday night, but said he was just suffering from an upset stomach. … Senior safety James Butts was helped off the field in the first half and didn't return. He limped back onto the field after the game wearing a brace on his left leg. … The Pirates ran 75 plays for 417 yards and were penalized 12 times for 107 yards. The Wildcats had 414 yards on 69 plays and 10 penalties for 69 yards. … The game, HU's second on ESPNU this season, was delayed 56 minutes by lightning and ended at 12:20 a.m.
Staff writer Dave Fairbank contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun