WASHINGTON -- The Morgan State football team has been growing up in recent weeks, and yesterday it finally may have reached maturity.
Down by 11 points with less than five minutes to play, the Bears staged a stirring comeback and overtook Howard, 17-14, on two touchdown passes from Michael Moore to Donte Carter.
The much-maligned Morgan defense pitched in with a crucial stop of the Howard offense inside the last three minutes, forcing a punt that led to the Bears' winning 50-yard touchdown drive.
Morgan (3-7, 2-4) thus avoided the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference basement for the first time since it rejoined the league 10 years ago.
"This one is bigger than the Florida A&M; win because of the proximity," said Bears coach Ricky Diggs, referring to a 24-20 victory over the Rattlers two weeks earlier. "This one helps us recruit in this area."
"It's a tie," countered Moore. "We spoiled FAMU's homecoming. But Howard is Howard. This is our rival."
Morgan has played the Bison in football longer than any other school -- since 1899. And the past two years, Howard had crushed the Bears by a combined 134-58.
But Howard (4-6, 1-4) is missing quarterback Jay Walker from its NCAA Division I-AA playoff team of last season and now must beat Delaware State on Saturday to avoid replacing Morgan in the MEAC cellar.
Morgan took charge of the game in the first half with its ground game and surprisingly good defensive play. But the half ended in a scoreless tie because the Bears couldn't punch in a touchdown and Shane Griffiths failed on field-goal attempts from 17 and 45 yards away.
Howard then took the second-half kickoff on a 12-play, 61-yard scoring march capped by Rhadi Ferguson's 1-yard plunge.
The 7-0 lead stood until the second play of the fourth period when Griffiths connected on a 24-yard field goal to bring Morgan to within four.
Then, with only 6:21 remaining in the game, Ferguson burst away from two tacklers on a 40-yard touchdown -- to apparently put it away for Howard at 14-3.
But Morgan managed to pull it out, despite a strange decision by Diggs.
The Bears drove 59 yards, the last 15 on a Moore-to-Carter connection, to close to within 14-9 with 4:10 left. But Diggs chose to send in Griffiths for a conversion kick although two points were necessary to bring Howard within a field goal.
Diggs said: "All we had to do was get the ball back and do it again. I wasn't concerned."
Moore agreed. "We've got big-time offensive players, so I wasn't worried," he said. "Just go to big-play Donte."
A defense that had permitted more than 40 points a game this season produced two sacks on the next Bison series, pushing Howard back to its 14 and forcing a punt.
"This was our best defensive game in four years," said a jubilant Diggs. "We got their quarterback [Antonio King] all day."
Morgan took over at the 50, and it didn't take Moore long to find Carter again. After scrambling for 9 yards on first down, the quarterback hit Carter on a 15-yard pass across the middle and Carter eluded the defense, aimed for the corner and completed a 41-yard scoring play to put Morgan ahead for the first time.
Howard still had almost two minutes to work with, but a charge led by linebackers Sidney Cutchin and Levi Baucom overcame even a 15-yard penalty against Morgan.
A second sack by Cutchin on the series ended Howard's bid on fourth-and-21.
"Our whole team showed up today," said Carter. "We've been trying to rebuild, so this is a big one. It's nice to be out of last place."
Morgan State .. ..0 .. ..0 ..0 ..17 ..-- ..17
Howard .. .. .. ..0 .. ..0 ..7 ...7 ..-- ..14
NEXT FOR MORGAN
Who: Towson State
When: Saturday, at Minnegan Stadium
E9 Yesterday: Defeated Southern Connecticut State, 48-0.