A MORE MATURE MOORE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Michael Moore has been down before. Since coming to Morgan State three years ago, his football career has been filled with hurdles.

In 1991, he was a freshman, a hotshot quarterback from Toledo, Ohio, who impressed then-rookie coach Ricky Diggs enough to win the starting job. Two knee injuries ended his season near the midway point. The next year, a rotator-cuff injury in his throwing shoulder turned Moore into a medical redshirt. Then, last year, Moore learned he was academically ineligible when he reported to camp, ruining yet another season.

Moore finally landed behind center this year, which promptly often landed him on his back. Two games into the season, Moore's body was battered and his ego bruised after he played poorly in an 87-12 loss to Grambling State.

"That was the most embarrassing loss at any level for me since I've been a football player," Moore said. "I just felt so out of sync."

Which he was. After playing barely a half-season over three years, Moore lined up against one of the nation's best Division I-AA teams. His first pass was picked off and returned for a touchdown, setting the tone for a nightmare.

These days, Moore is laughing more, and the Golden Bears are having a ball.

Morgan State has lived at the bottom of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference standings since rejoining the league in 1984 -- until last week. The Bears traveled to rival Howard, spotted the Bison two leads, then came back. Two second-half touchdown passes by Moore lifted them to a 17-14 victory.

The Bears (3-7) play at Towson State in Saturday's season finale. And no one wishes the season could go on more than Moore, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound junior who finally has begun to realize his potential.

Morgan State has won two of its past three games, largely because of a vastly improved defense. Much credit also belongs to Moore. After taking his lumps, he has settled in as the leader of the offense, becoming equally comfortable with the pro set and run-and-shoot formations Diggs employs.

Consider that, in his past five games, Moore has thrown for 1,440 yards and 11 touchdowns, throwing only six interceptions in 163 attempts. In his first four games, Moore managed only 503 yards and three touchdowns, with nine interceptions. Suddenly, Moore is within 77 yards of Orlando Persell's school single-season passing yardage mark.

"I felt like a freshman all over again trying to learn the system," Moore said. "I was in that playbook every night. And I felt myself trying to make stuff happen too much on the field, instead of letting it happen. I think we've all matured as a team. We're playing with attitude now. For the past few weeks, losing hasn't even entered our minds."

Said senior wide receiver Bernard Barnes: "It was hard for him [Moore] to jump back into the swing. A lot of people expected him to do that. Mike has that feeling back now."

Diggs agreed. He said he was willing to tolerate some of the fumbles and interceptions he knew would come early. But after the Grambling game, Diggs decided to bench Moore. A week later, after freshman quarterback Adam Pitcher suffered a concussion during a 22-13 loss to Knoxville, Moore was back in charge.

"Mike took that in a positive way," Diggs said of the benching. "My gut was telling me to let him work it out, because I knew what kind of a quarterback he was.

"We had to spoon-feed him the run-and-shoot in the beginning of the season, which is why I went withmore of a two-back offense. We simplified things for him. Mixing up the offenses has really helped us. And Mike doesn't have those nervous feet in the pocket anymore."

Now, it's opposing defenses that have become increasingly nervous. Moore and Diggs pointed to a 26-16 loss to North Carolina A&T; five weeks ago as a turning point, when Moore threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns and had the Bears in position to win.

Two weeks later, Moore threw for 276 yards and two more touchdowns to lead the Bears to a 24-20 victory at Florida A&M; -- Morgan State's first road MEAC win in 10 years. A week later, Moore's growing confidence mushroomed against Samford. He threw for a career-high 417 yards in a 40-34 loss. Then came his heroics against Howard.

Persell, who returned to Morgan State as a graduate assistant to coach the quarterbacks this year, said he is especially delighted with Moore's development. Earlier this season, Persell would pull Moore aside after a mistake -- and the chewing-out that would follow from Diggs -- to calm him, then tutor him.

"Mike really hasn't played in three years. It just took time," Persell said. "Now, he's making the right decisions. When he makes a mistake, he doesn't let it linger. He doesn't play in the past.

"We expect good things out of him Saturday, and we expect great things out of him next year."

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