Problems on offense contributed to the Morgan State football team’s 28-14 loss at Howard in a key Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference showdown Saturday. But the special teams had their fair share of troubles, too.
The most conspicuous gaffe was the Bears' (2-6, 2-2 MEAC) allowing Bison sophomore punter John Fleck to take the snap, tuck the ball under his arm and scamper 52 yards to the end zone to give Howard a 15-7 lead with 3:02 left in the second quarter.
Morgan State coach Donald Hill-Eley insisted that his team was prepared for that play because Fleck had also run it for a 27-yard gain in the Bison’s 21-10 win against Florida A&M on Oct. 19.
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“We knew it was coming, and we put a guy in that position,” Hill-Eley said. “They spread it out. It looked like it was four-wide, but the kid was ineligible. So he decided to check the kid as opposed to coming upfield, like we had told him. But that comes down to having a bunch of young guys and not playing within the confinements of the scheme, and they took advantage of it.”
Howard coach Rayford Petty said the key to the play was Fleck, who recognized that the Bears seemed more intent on getting back to block for senior punt returner Broderick Gager than keeping an eye on Fleck.
“We call it a rugby kick, and the punter makes the decision on whether he’s going to run the ball or not,” Petty said. “If they turn back and go back to try to return it, then he’s supposed to run. It’s not a planned fake punt. It’s just worked out twice for us.”
Morgan State also allowed a two-point conversion after the Bison's (3-5, 2-3) first touchdown, and wasted a trip inside Howard’s 20-yard line when redshirt freshman Chris Moller’s 27-yard field-goal attempt hit the left upright. And Fleck missed field-goal tries from 36 and 43 yards in the fourth quarter that Morgan State failed to convert into points.
All those misses came in the southern end of the stadium, where a strong wind wreaked havoc on the flight of the ball, according to Hill-Eley.
“We knew that in that end zone, I think you had wind at 25 knots, and the average field goal on that side in pre-practice was maybe, like, the 15-yard line,” he said. “So as we went down to try to get it when the wind is in your face, it pushes the ball to the right. When we went for the field goal — I think it was on the 18-yard line — it was a game of the elements, and wind in certain games can be more destructive than the rain.”
Those miscues overshadowed Gager’s 89-yard punt return for a touchdown with 11:12 left in the second quarter, Morgan State's first since Winfred Diggs' 81-yard return score on Nov. 21, 2010.
“The first thing I wanted to do was just catch the ball so that we could gain field position,” Gager said. “But after I caught it, I saw a few blocks that opened up, and I just hit the hole as hard as I could.”
Said Hill-Eley: “It was momentum for us. He was able to get that punt return, get back through the crease and score, and it really put life back into the sideline. When you’re playing at homecomings, it’s tough. You’ve got to be able to get in and make your plays, and we just didn’t make our plays to pull it out.”