The Morgan State football team found its rhythm on offense in the first and fourth quarters of its Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference opener against Norfolk State. It was the middle stretch that proved to be the Bears' undoing Saturday.
The offense had minus-1 yard in the second and third quarters combined, and the Spartans took advantage with 20 unanswered points en route to a 27-21 win before an announced 856 at Hughes Stadium in Baltimore.
Morgan State, which has lost its first five games of the season for the first time since 2000, racked up 234 yards and three touchdowns in the opening and final quarters but could not overcome its own crippling play in between.
"We just didn't have the sense of urgency that we had in the beginning of the game," said junior quarterback Seth Higgins (Edgewood). "We came out with fire and then we got down. Then we realized the game was in jeopardy and we tried to turn it up. We need to keep that fire the whole game."
Over the second and third quarters, Morgan State failed to gain a first down on four possessions, had one drive end on a fumble by freshman running back Herb Walker Jr. and saw another series cut short after a pass from Higgins was tipped and intercepted.
The Bears have been outscored 59-9 in the second quarter and 35-16 in the third quarter this season.
Two other turnovers — a first-quarter fumble by Walker and an end-of-regulation interception on a Hail Mary pass from Higgins — gave Morgan State four Saturday and 11 overall in the team's first five games.
"It's very troubling," coach Donald Hill-Eley said of the team's inability to protect the football. "You can't turn the ball over and beat good teams. You can't turn the ball over and beat bad teams. You've got to possess the football, and then we've got to continue to find plays to get points and create some life and excitement on that side of the ball."
A 34-yard field goal gave Norfolk State (1-3 overall, 1-0 MEAC) its largest lead of the game, 20-7, just five seconds into the fourth quarter.
A 54-yard return by senior Tubotein Taylor on the ensuing kickoff put the Bears on the Spartans' 45-yard line. Six plays later, Higgins kept the ball on a read-option and scampered 8 yards off right tackle to trim the deficit to 20-14 with 11:49 remaining.
But Norfolk State embarked on a 15-play drive that consumed 79 yards and 8:41 of game clock and ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Brendon Riddick with 3:03 left in regulation.
The Spartans converted four third downs and one fourth down on the drive, which was aided by a pass-interference call on senior cornerback Lafredo Brady and a holding penalty on senior free safety Darien Irby.
"You've got to be disciplined, and on that last drive, you had four third downs converted and they didn't execute," Hill-Eley said, noting that Morgan State was penalized 11 times for 115 yards. "Three unsportsmanlikes in some form or fashion keeps them on the field and keeps their drives alive. It's just very disappointing."
Higgins, who became the first Bears quarterback to play an entire game this season, finished just 5-for-14 passing for 83 yards and one touchdown. But he also led the team in rushing with 63 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries.
A run defense that entered Saturday having given up 303.0 yards per game and 16 touchdowns total held Norfolk State to just 134 yards and one scoreon the ground. Junior middle linebacker Cody Acker led all players with 14 tackles and two forced fumbles.
A sloppy first half prevented Morgan State from taking a sizeable advantage. The offense marched 54 yards on the game's opening series, but Walker lost a fumble inside the Spartans' 20.
The defense forced Norfolk State into a three-and-out, and the Bears regained possession at the Spartans' 27. But redshirt freshman kicker Chris Moller's 23-yard field-goal attempt was blocked by junior strong safety Keenan Lambert.
Norfolk State fumbled on the second play of its ensuing drive, and Morgan State capped a six-play, 27-yard drive when Higgins leaped over the center for a 1-yard scoring plunge and 7-0 lead with 1:04 left in the first quarter.
But the Bears offense slowed in the second quarter, and the Spartans took advantage — and a 10-7 lead — with a pair of scores on their last two series of the half.
Sophomore quarterback Tyler Clark hit junior Lynden Trail for a 4-yard slant in the end zone with 3:37 remaining. And after a quick Morgan State three-and-out, Norfolk State finished a six-play, 23-yard drive with a 21-yard field goal from junior Ryan Lee with 18.5 seconds left in the first half.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun