Even after Morgan State had suffered back-to-back blowouts, the kind of losses that can test a team's tenacity, junior linebacker Delwyn Garnett said he never doubted the resolve of his teammates.
"We didn't look down on our ourselves. Our coaches kept us upbeat. They kept telling us that we're only as good as our next game," said Garnett, referring to a two-week stretch last month, in which the Bears were outscored 97-44.
"Our team is together. The key is we're close-knit, family-oriented," Garnett added. "We're more focused than ever. I think we're a team that's able to overcome adversity."
If any of the Bears questioned Garnett's opinion beforehand, they probably agree with him after what the Bears did in their last game. Two weeks ago, with a come-from-behind, 38-21 victory at Virginia Union, Morgan State may have rescued its season.
Playing before a hostile crowd -- their third road game in a row -- the Bears rebounded from a terrible first quarter that left them trailing 21-3. From the second period on, they quit making turnovers and committing costly penalties. Their defense finally stopped an opponent's running game. Their offense did whatever it pleased.
After an off week, Morgan State returns home tomorrow to begin the meat grinder of its schedule with South Carolina State. For the next four weeks, the Bears will face tough Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference teams, as North Carolina AT&T;, Delaware State and Florida A&M; follow the Bulldogs.
It's a stretch that will reveal how much progress Morgan State has made and decide whether the Bears can achieve their first winning season since 1979. The Bears have lost seven straight MEAC games. But after the Virginia Union game, maybe the most satisfying victory in his three years at Morgan State, coach Ricky Diggs ignored history for a moment and addressed the way the Bears bounced back after routs against Bethune-Cookman (41-17) and Youngstown State (56-27).
"As a coach, as much as you try to motivate players and get them to forget what happened last week, you really don't know what they're thinking," said Diggs, who is 5-21 at Morgan. "All I can do is preach about dwelling on the good things and correcting the errors. I'm real pleased with their attitude, their enthusiasm and with the way they're believing in themselves."
For now, Morgan State's report card is a mixed bag that fits its 2-2 record. The Bears are averaging 34 points a game. They are also giving up 34. Their run-and-shoot offense is averaging 286 passing yards per game -- ninth best among Division I-AA schools -- but is gaining a modest 3.7 yards per rush. Their pass defense is ranked fourth in I-AA (75 yards a game), but they're giving up 300 yards a game on the ground. They have forced 12 turnovers, but have committed 14.
Much of the inconsistency can be traced to inexperience, particularly on defense and the offensive line.
When senior center David Armstead was injured in practice with a broken thumb last week, that left the Bears with two freshmen and two sophomores up front. Otherwise, Morgan State has excelled behind its seniors. The quarterback tandem of Orlando Persell (605 yards, five TDs) and Maurice Chase (538, seven TDs) has been effective, and receiver Jesse Humphrey (17.8 yards per catch, six TDs) has overcome a slow start.
On defense, four freshmen and two sophomores are holding the Bears together. Senior end Matt Steeple (38 tackles, seven sacks), Garnett (38 tackles) and sophomore cornerback Eric Johnson (three interceptions) have been the mainstays.
The nagging problem for Morgan State has been a tendency to start poorly. In each of the Bears' victories, they've had to rally from a double-digit deficit after the first quarter. The Bears have been outscored 56-17 in the first 15 minutes.
Diggs, while acknowledging youth and the lack of depth as major concerns, likes to point to the Virginia Union game as a sign of life in the Bears' troubled program. After all, the Bears regrouped to hold Virginia Union to 19 yards rushing in the second half, while scoring five unanswered touchdowns. Now, it's on to S.C. State, a team the Bears haven't beaten since 1979.
"Where we're hurting most as opposed to other MEAC programs is depth. We're beat up," Diggs said. "We lose a guy here or there, and we could be in serious trouble. If we can keep our first unit healthy, we can be competitive enough to win some MEAC games."