If the opponent had been the usual soft touch a team almost always schedules for its homecoming football game, Morgan State would have enjoyed a dilly of a celebration last night.
The Bears were inspired, resourceful and efficient yesterday afternoon.
Unfortunately for them, it was North Carolina A&T;, the nation's fifth-ranked Division I-AA team, on the other side of the ball and all the high emotion and proficient play weren't quite enough.
Morgan took the Aggies into the fourth quarter in a virtual standoff, but ran out of pep and points and dropped their Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference matchup, 49-33, before a crowd 13,462 at Hughes Stadium.
"As a unit, offensively, defensively and on special teams, that's the best we've ever played," said Bears coach Ricky Diggs. "If it had been anybody we play but the nation's No. 5 team, we would have won this game."
"Last week we came out and played flat," said quarterback Orlando Persell, referring to the 27-0 first-quarter thrashing the Bears took from South Carolina State. "We made it a point never to let that happen again."
Although the Aggies (6-0, 2-0 MEAC) stunned Morgan with a flea flicker play that produced a 66-yard touchdown on the game's first snap, the Bears never folded. They simply wore out.
They solved their first-quarter blues (they had been outscored 84-13 in the first 15 minutes in five previous games) with an interception by Anthony Freeman that set up a five-play, 11-yard touchdown drive late in the period. That culminated with a 1-yard pass from Persell to Jesse Humphrey.
After the opening-play surprise, the Bears' defense kept A&T; pinned in its own territory until late in the second quarter. Meanwhile, Morgan (2-4, 0-3) grabbed a 14-7 lead on a 39-yard march capped by Persell's 5-yard score on an option play.
But late in both halves, the Bears couldn't sustain the advantage as North Carolina A&T; pounded away with its heavy-duty backs, James White (117 yards, 2 touchdowns), Barry Turner and Rudy Brown.
The Aggies also caught a break when they scored with four seconds remaining in the first half to regain their lead (28-21) after Tony Phillips had broken loose on a 93-yard scoring -- for Morgan to tie it at 21.
They received the ball at the Morgan 48 with 21 seconds to go before the break and chose not to ice it. Quarterback Maseo Bolin connected with James Bowden on a 41-yard pass and the Bears were penalized for roughing the passer.
That put the ball at the 3 and Bolin then hit James Harris in the end zone to restore the lead.
Morgan kicker Shane Griffiths had his problems -- he missed two extra points and one field-goal attempt was blocked. Still, after falling behind by 14 points again, the Bears fought back to within 35-33 with touchdown drives of 78 and 80 yards, the second aided by 35 yards of penalties assessed against A&T.;
And they entered the fourth quarter with a chance for the biggest victory of Diggs' three-year tenure.
The turning point arrived when the Aggies scored on fourth down after three times running into a stout goal-line stand by Morgan at the 1.
That sapped the final life from the upset notions. Morgan did not cross midfield again until the waning seconds. The Aggies marched 75 yards in nine plays to an insurance touchdown on their next possession and there was nothing left for the Bears but to contemplate what might have been.
"If we had stopped them right there at the goal line, it might have been different," said Diggs. "But they got up by 9 and started wearing us down. They're big and powerful and started pushing us all around."
Diggs also cited the quick touchdown at the start and the score just before halftime as crucial to the outcome.
"We knew this was a pretty good team," Persell said of A&T.; "We wanted to be ready for them."
They were ready to play. But with a young roster, the Bears weren't quite ready to win.
N. Carolina A&T; 7 21 7 14 -- 49
Morgan State 6 15 12 0 -- 33