Home surroundings and a winless opponent provided the impetus last night for Morgan State, which made key plays in every phase of football and whipped Monmouth, 35-20, at Hughes Stadium.
In the first meeting between the schools, the second half developed into an unpredictable battle of errors and turnovers, but the Bears converted more into points to earn their first victory since Oct. 13.
Sophomore Thomas Potts came back from a series of injuries, including a hamstring pull and an ingrown toenail, to return a fumble 24 yards for a touchdown. He also intercepted two passes to spearhead a Bears defense that forced four Monmouth turnovers.
"I've been hurt for weeks, and I'm just getting over it," Potts said. "I was working hard just to get back onto the field. And this is the best the defense has played this year."
A poor Monmouth snap on a punt attempt recovered by Justin Hunt at the Hawks' 1 started Morgan's good fortune. T.J. Stallings plunged over for a touchdown on the next play to give the Bears a 21-14 edge. Morgan never trailed again.
A 48-yard drive on the next possession, capped by Bradshaw Littlejohn's 16-yard scoring pass to Visanthe Shiancoe, put Morgan ahead by two touchdowns with 2:11 remaining in the third quarter.
Monmouth (0-3) came right back on the next series when Joe Migliore was open by 15 yards behind the Bears' defense and Bill Rankin hit him for what turned into a school-record, 90-yard touchdown play.
A series of miscues followed. Morgan (1-3) had a sure touchdown pass dropped. Monmouth had a field-goal try blocked. The Bears lost a fumble and on the next play, the Hawks were intercepted.
Morgan fumbled at the Monmouth 3 the next time it had the ball, but finally put the game away with a 55-yard drive culminated by Littlejohn's 7-yard touchdown pass to William Sherman with 2:35 left.
"The defense stepped up," Bears coach Donald Hill-Eley said. "We had been giving up so much on the ground, we knew they'd try to run and get some success. But it was good to see us make adjustments."
The Bears' offense was its usual self with 352 yards in merely 25:15 minutes of ball possession, but it was the contributions of the special teams and a sturdy defensive effort, led by Potts, that gave the team a 3-4 home record since the stadium was renovated.
"We were kind of sluggish in the first half, but our line was coming off the ball a lot better in the second [half]," said Littlejohn, who rushed for 86 yards and passed for 118 yards and two touchdowns. "We got some big turnovers from the defense and the energy stayed on our side, so we came out on top."
Monmouth marched 55 yards in seven plays just before halftime to take a 14-13 lead on a 14-yard pass from Rankin to Pete Raspitzi and Ryan Peterson's conversion kick.
Just four minutes earlier, the Bears broke a 7-7 tie on their biggest defensive play of the season.
Antwuan Williamson was carrying the ball for the Hawks when it was stripped by linebacker Carlos Watts. Potts picked up the fumble and romped into the end zone from the Monmouth 24.
But a high snap foiled the extra-point attempt and Morgan settled for a six-point lead.
The first female football official on the Division I-AA level, Annice Canady, worked the game as the line judge.
It was her third assignment in the MEAC after being recommended out of various clinics, which NFL consultants attend to evaluate prospective officials.
"She was one of the best in the camp when she was selected," MEAC coordinator of officials Johnny Grier said last night.
Next for Morgan: Opponent: Bethune-Cookman
Site: Hughes Stadium
When: Oct. 5, 7 p.m.
Yesterday: Beat Florida International, 31-0.