The best thing Morgan State can say about last night's 56-49 loss to visiting Gardner-Webb was the Bears actually had a chance to win.
After falling behind the Bulldogs by 20 points with just under 10 minutes to play, on a night when their youthful defensive backfield struggled and their offense negated a 482-yard evening by committing five turnovers, the Bears put a charge into 4,156 fans at Hughes Stadium by scoring two unanswered touchdowns.
But, following a 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Bradshaw Littlejohn to wide receiver Tommy Manus that cut the margin to 56-49 with 44 seconds left, Morgan State botched an onside kick attempt and lost an opportunity to pull off a stunning, come-from-behind victory.
It was a wild, slipshod affair, in which the two teams combined for 1,010 yards and eight turnovers, while each squad committed 10 penalties and occasionally played defense. And the final result left Littlejohn shaking his head, after the Bears (1-1) fell short in trying for their first 2-0 start since 1990.
"I had a sloppy game. There's no other word for it. My teammates count on me to make big plays, and I came out flat," said Littlejohn, who threw for two touchdowns and 257 yards, but also threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
Littlejohn excused his defense, which features three freshmen cornerbacks in Dakota Bracey, Herman Hayes and Jason Little. They were part of a group that surrendered four touchdown passes by Bulldogs (1-1) quarterback Nick Roberts, who also tempered his 316 yards with three interceptions.
"When you give up 90 points in two games, you probably should have two losses. I'll take this," said Morgan State coach Donald Hill-Eley, whose Bears have allowed 91 points already. "We had our opportunities. It's just a matter of us being able to stop them."
The Bears lived and mostly died by the big play in the early going, as Gardner-Webb blew an early 14-3 lead, yet had little trouble putting Morgan State in a 35-22 hole at halftime.
Littlejohn completed just six of 18 first-half passes. His most glaring error - a badly-timed toss to wide receiver Tommy Manus in the right flat - resulted in an interception by Bulldogs cornerback Allen Davis, who returned it 29 yards for a touchdown to give Gardner-Webb a 14-3 advantage with 44 seconds left in the first quarter.
On the flip side, Littlejohn produced 114 yards with two big strikes to wide-out Kelvin Dickens.
The first, which immediately followed his costly interception, went for 51 yards and set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Craig Nelson, pulling the Bears to within 14-9 in the closing seconds of the first quarter. The second was a 63-yard pass that constituted a one-play scoring drive by Morgan and cut the Bulldogs' lead to 28-22 with 5:02 left in the half.
After the Bears took their second and final lead of the game with 9:02 left in the first half, when Littlejohn ran 3 yards for a touchdown run that made it 16-14, the Bulldogs scored on three of their next four possessions to take control.
Gardner-Webb 14 21 14 7 - 56
Morgan State 9 13 14 13 - 49
MS-FG 23 Keever, 9:25 GW-Boston 18 run (Smith kick), 6:09 GW-Davis 29 interception return (Smith kick), :44 MS-Nelson 1 run (run failed), :26
Second quarter MS-Littlejohn 3 run (Keever kick), 9:02 GW-Goodson 64 run (Smith kick), 8:42 GW-Alston 35 pass from Roberts (Smith kick), 7:31 MS-Dickens 63 pass from Littlejohn (kick failed), 5:02 GW-Swartz 10 pass from Roberts (Smith kick), :50
Third quarter GW-Richardson 12 pass from Roberts (Smith kick), 11:07 MS-Nelson 6 run (Keever kick), 5:57 GW-Alston 65 pass from Roberts (Smith kick), 4:28 MS-Wolfe 97 kickoff return (Keever kick), 4:13
Fourth quarter GW-Roberts 6 run (Smith kick), 9:49 MS-Nelson 3 run (Keever kick), 4:11 MS-Manus 6 pass from Littlejohn (kick failed), :44
......................................... GW ........ MS
First downs .................. 24 ........... 22
Rushes-yards ....... 36-212 .......... 37-225
Passing ......................... 316 .......... 257
Comp-Att-Int ...... 19-39-4 ......... 20-46-3
Return Yards .............. 238 ......... 231
Punts-Avg. ................. 3-45 .......... 3-35.3
Fumbles-Lost .............. 1-1 ........... 2-0
Penalties-Yards .... 10-102 .......... 10-125
Time of Possession 25:54 ........... 34:06
Rushing-Gardner-Webb, Goodson 6-89, Boston 15-63, Roberts 13-56, Wells 1-5. Morgan State, Littlejohn 18-120, Nelson 18-68, Garner 1-37.
Passing-Gardner-Webb, Roberts 19-39-4-316. Morgan State, Littlejohn 20-46-3-257.
Receiving-Gardner-Webb, Pittman 6-67, Gaines 5-92, Alston 3-115, Swartz 2-20, Boston 2-10, Richardson 1-12. Morgan State, Manus 9-66, Dickens 5-145, Wolfe 3-29, Cash 3-17.
Next for Morgan
Matchup: Morgan State (1-1) vs. San Jose State (1-0)
Site: Spartan Stadium, San Jose, Calif.
When: Saturday, 5 p.m.
Radio: WEAA (88.9 FM)
Yesterday: San Jose State was idle.