It was a season like no other for the Howard football team – until it all came crashing down in devastating fashion.
In the 4A state championship game for the first time in 40 years, the previously undefeated Lions were simply overmatched by Henry A. Wise, 55-6, at M&T Bank Stadium on Dec. 4. It's the second state championship for the Pumas in the last four seasons.
"I'm extremely proud. ... It's surreal right now," said Pumas coach DaLawn Parrish, who graduated from Howard in 1994. "It's an unbelievable feeling that we were able to come out here and do what we did to a team like that."
Howard finishes the season 13-1 and drops to 25-2 in the last two years. Though the season came to a disappointing end, the Lions' season is nothing short of historic as they are the first Howard County team to reach the 4A title game. The bright lights of an NFL stadium and a relaxed attitude entering the game got to them, Howard coach Bruce Strunk admitted, as they scored a season-low six points after averaging more than 34 per game through the first 13 contests.
"All season long I've been proud of these guys. We had a lot of hurdles – we lost 32 kids from last year's team, a very good team, and we weren't supposed to be the top dog in our county," Strunk said. "We weren't supposed to beat some of the teams in our county, and our kids just worked their tails off and overcame those obstacles. We got into the playoffs and nobody thought we would beat a Montgomery County team or an Anne Arundel County team, and we did. ... Except for a state championship, I don't know what else they could have done."
From start to finish, though, the Lions couldn't stop the Pumas. Wise outgained Howard 395-127 on offense despite running 10 plays less, and it never punted in the game. Pumas running back CJ Rainey was the difference, as he ran the ball 19 times for 153 yards and five touchdowns, four of which game in the first half. The Lions trailed 21-0 after the first quarter, and went into the half facing a 34-0 deficit.
"We felt like watching the film that we were better than them at every position," Parrish said. "We just felt like we had to tackle [Malik Anderson]," Parrish said. "The kids settled down and felt like they could get off blocks."
After Anderson burst through for a 25-yard run on the first play of the game for the Lions, the Pumas shut down the Lions offense and then put on a show with its own offense. Wise, of Prince George's County, forced a punt and put together a seven play, 80-yard drive that was capped by Rainey's first touchdown of the game and a two-point conversion.
On its next possession, it only took the Pumas one play to find the endzone and make it 15-0. Quarterback Jabari Laws found wide receiver Damon Hayes streaking down the right side on a perfect pass for a 39-yard touchdown catch.
With a score on the ground and in the air, it was then that Parrish sensed that the game could snowball in his team's favor.
"At that point, I realized they couldn't cover or stop the run," he said. "After that, it was going to get out of hand. You have to sell out to stop the run or the pass. If you're going to play balanced defense, that's going to be a problem."
Howard got its second first-down of the game on an 11-yard catch by Tanner Scaife, but one play later turned it over after a botched snap. The Pumas took advantage, as Rainey ran in his second score of the night – this time a 1-yard run – to cap a six play, 31-yard drive.
A 21-point deficit turned into 27 when Rainey scored on a 6-yard run early in the second quarter, his third touchdown of the contest, and it turned into a 34-0 lead when Rainey found the endzone for again from 10-yards out with 6:06 left in the first half.
It was the third playoff straight game that the Lions found themselves trailing early. This time they just couldn't find their footing and get back into the game.
"They are that good," Strunk said. "That is a very talented team and a well-coached team at Wise, and I told the guys that we can't start slow like we did in the other two playoff games. We did, and they jumped all over us and we never recovered. ... It was one of those games that nothing went right."
Howard had a chance to score at the end of the half after recovering and returning a Pumas fumble inside its own territory, but senior quarterback Casey Crawford was sacked and threw two incompletions after getting to the 13-yard line. A trick-play with Anderson throwing across the field resulted in an interception and a 34-0 halftime deficit. It was the first time all season Howard was held scoreless in the first half.
The Lions finished the game with just seven completed passes, as Crawford faced pressure the majority of the game. He came into the contest with 2,293 passing yards and 26 touchdowns, but could only manage to throw for 15 yards against the Pumas stifling defense that allowed an average of just 5.5 points per game.
"I was facing a lot of pressure all night, not because my line wasn't doing a good job but because they were bringing the blitz," Crawford said. "I wasn't seeing the blitz as well as I usually do. Their corners and outside linebackers are great players – really fast and aggressive. ... Somebody's got to win, and unfortunately it was them most of the time."
Things didn't get any better for Howard in the second half. Wise wide receiver Michael Clark took a handoff and ran 53 yards down the left sideline to force a running clock and give the Pumas a 41-0 lead.
Laws pushed the lead to 48-0 as he capped a 45-yard drive with a 15-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
It wasn't until 4:36 left in the game that Howard found the endzone after a six play, 64-yard drive that included a 43-yard run by Anderson. Anderson took a toss to the right, planted his right foot, cut it up the middle and extended the ball across the chalk for a 4-yard touchdown that prevented the shutout.
"It was really important for me [to score]," Anderson said. "Either we are going to win, or go out playing our hardest. ... My team was behind me the whole way. It just didn't finish out the way we wanted."
Rainey, however, wasn't finished. He answered the Anderson score with his fifth touchdown of the night, as he burst through the left side for a 56-yard score on the first play of the next drive. The 55 points gave Wise 585 on the season, an average of more than 41 per game and a school record.
Anderson led the way for Howard with 22 carries for 128 yards and a touchdown. The 5-foot-6 running back finishes the year with 2,002 yards and 24 touchdowns on the ground, and he ends his varsity career with 4,936 all-purpose yards. He broke Parrish's record that stood for 21 years earlier this season.
"Records are made to be broken. You're always happy when someone comes along and breaks your record," Parrish said. "If you're a true competitor, it was set by you for someone else to come and break it. I'm happy that it went down ... He's an outstanding young man and he deserves it."
Even though the Lions fell flat on Friday night, they will enter the 2016 season riding a regular season winning streak of 24 games.
Henry A. Wise (14-0) 55, Howard (13-1) 6
W: CJ Rainey 5-yard run (conversion good) [8-0]
W: Jabari Laws 39-yard pass to Damon Hayes (Yeboah kick) [15-0]
W Rainey 1-yard run (Yeboah kick) [21-0]
W: Rainey 6-yard run (conversion failed) [27-0]
W: Rainey 10-yard run (Yeboah kick) [34-0]
W: Michael Clark 53-yard run (Yeboah kick) [41-0]
W: Laws 15-yard run (Yeboah kick) [48-0]
Ho: Malik Anderson 4-yard run (kick failed) [48-6]
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W: Rainey 56-yard run (Yeboah kick) [55-6]