Morgan State coach Donald Hill-Eley can cope with the frequent missteps of his youthful defense. He can excuse the lack of execution by his sophomore quarterback, in whom he sees vast potential.
It's the momentum-changing miscues of his special teams, however, that hit the fourth-year coach like a punch to the gut. Once again yesterday, a series of lapses on special teams proved costly for the Bears, who allowed Norfolk State to take command with 17 unanswered points in the final 3:33 of the first half in a 24-21 loss before 3,672 on Senior Day at Hughes Stadium.
"The whole year, special teams has been our momentum drop," Hill-Eley said. "We've either had a punt blocked or we've had a return to kill the whole momentum of the team. All the way back to Knute Rockne, if you get a punt blocked, there's a 70 percent chance that you lose."
A blocked punt was only part of the equation that led to Morgan's downfall, which began late in the first half of a 7-7 game.
The Spartans (3-6 overall, 2-5 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) began the stretch by forcing Morgan to punt at its 5, then driving 44 yards in six plays to take the lead on Daryl Jones' 1-yard plunge over the top with 3:33 left in the half.
Moments later, Norfolk, which has now won back-to-back games for the first time since 2002, caught the Bears (2-8, 1-6) off guard with an onside kick, which reserve running back Andrew Cook recovered for the Spartans near midfield. When James Callaham (six catches, 119 yards) then reeled in Brandon Brooks' 44-yard pass over the top, beating Dakota Bracey in one-on-one coverage, the Spartans' lead had grown to 21-7.
"I saw from the very first kickoff that [the onside kick] was there," Norfolk State coach Pete Adrian said. "I was just waiting for the opportune time to call it. I knew they weren't going to be expecting it, and they weren't. That was huge."
Another key mistake by the Bears put them even further in the hole before halftime.
Faced with a fourth-and-18 at their 20, Morgan's Anthony Young bounced a snap to punter Thomas Beese, who, under heavy duress, got off a partially blocked punt that officially went for 0 yards.
That set up Antonio Gomez's 33-yard field goal to extend the lead to 24-7 as time expired in the half. The Bears looked like they had regained the momentum when quarterback Byron Selby, a redshirt sophomore out of Dunbar, scored on an 8-yard run early in the third quarter, then ran for the two-point conversion to cut the lead to nine. Though Selby threw for 251 yards, he had trouble connecting with receivers throughout the second half, finishing 13 of 31 for the day.
"We just missed a bunch of reads," Hill-Eley said. "I've never been in a game where the quarterback threw the ball 10 times or more in the dirt and guys were running open. We just couldn't connect. That's been our Achilles' heel all year - we're just not making plays when we need to make them."
Selby scored again, this time on a 30-yard run, to get his team within a field goal with 7:29 to play. On a potential game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter, however, he threw three straight incomplete passes from Norfolk State's 35, and the Bears turned over the ball on downs.
It was a crushing blow to a team that must wrap up its season Saturday on the road against conference power South Carolina State. A loss would leave the Bears with their lowest win total since 2002.
Norfolk St. 7 17 0 0 - 24
Morgan St. 7 0 8 6 - 21
First quarter Nor-Jo. Allen 6 pass from Brooks (Gomez kick), 9:01. Mor-Dickens 29 pass from Selby (Meade kick), 6:02. Second quarter Nor-D. Jones 1 run (Gomez kick), 3:33. Nor-Callaham 44 pass from Brooks (Gomez kick), 2:14. Nor-FG Gomez 33, :00. Third quarter Mor-Selby 8 run (Selby run), 11:35. Fourth quarter Mor-Selby 30 run (kick failed), 7:29. A-3,672.
First downs 26 16
Rushes-yards 49-198 26-129
Passing 230 251
Comp-Att-Int 19-31-0 13-37-0
Return Yards 7 14
Punts-Avg. 6-37.3 6-30.0
Fumbles-Lost 2-2 0-0
Penalties-Yards 7-54 9-82
Time of Possession 36:38 23:22
Rushing-Norfolk St., T.Johnson 14-115, D.Jones 12-54, Anthony 12-33, Sammons 1-13, Richardson 1-0, Baker 1-(minus 2), Team 2-(minus 4), Brooks 6-(minus 11). Morgan St., Selby 18-81, Nelson 5-32, J.Jackson 3-16. Passing-Norfolk St., Brooks 19-31-0-230. Morgan St., Selby 13-37-0-251. Receiving-Norfolk St., Callaham 6-119, Baker 6-53, Jo.Allen 3-30, Sammons 2-11, D.Jones 1-9, T.Smith 1-8. Morgan St., Dickens 6-135, Cash 2-87, McKenzie 2-18, J.Wilson 2-0, J.Jackson 1-11.