People around the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference are talking about Morgan State football, and that’s a positive development.
Courtesy of a three-game winning streak, the Bears have an outside chance at capturing what would be their third league championship and first since 2014 and represent the conference in the Celebration Bowl Dec. 16 at noon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
It has been a long time since they were relevant, but they are basking in the attention now.
“We always had these expectations,” redshirt junior running back J.J. Davis said. “Our coach always likes to break it down and say that we have two seasons. We have our nonconference schedule in basically the first five games, but the true season starts when we begin playing conference games. So we’ve always had expectations of winning the MEAC.”
Coach Damon Wilson, who succeeded Tyrone Wheatley before the 2022 season, said this is the time to make a statement.
“We want to be in conversations in late November,” he said. “When you’re in conversations in late November, early December, you’re playing pretty good football, and that’s something we’ve talked about from day one. The preseason accolades and polls really don’t matter. It’s when that ball is kicked off and how you play later on in the season.”
Morgan State (4-5, 3-1 MEAC) must win in Saturday’s regular-season finale and then get some help to capture the conference title. If the Bears can defeat Howard (5-5, 3-1) at 1 p.m. in Washington, their hopes then rest on Delaware State (1-9, 0-4) — helmed by coach Lee Hull, who guided Morgan State to that MEAC championship in 2014 — upsetting North Carolina Central (8-2, 3-1) in a game that kicks off an hour later.
Howard upended North Carolina Central, 50-20, on Saturday to set up the three-way tie and would claim the league crown if both teams ended up tied for first place because of the head-to-head tiebreaker. But coach Larry Scott said his team’s focus is on the Bears.
“They have found a formula for what works for them this season, and it’s really built around their style of play and how hard they play,” he said. “It’s going to be physical, it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be very competitive, and I’m sure they’re going to come in here with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, and we know about it, and we’ll be prepared and ready for it. So it’s going to be a heck of a football game.”
Morgan State’s season opened with a 17-10 toppling of then-No. 16 Richmond that earned the team the FedEx Ground FCS National Team of the Week honor and junior linebacker Erick Hunter the MEAC Defensive Player of the Week award.
Then the Bears dropped five games in a row — a streak capped by a 16-10 setback to North Carolina Central on Oct. 19 in a Thursday night game broadcast by ESPNU. The slide was punctuated by an on-campus shooting on Oct. 3 that injured five people and forced the cancellation of its homecoming game against Stony Brook on Oct. 7.
Davis said the loss to North Carolina Central — in which the Eagles outscored Morgan State 13-7 in the fourth quarter and won the turnover margin by two — was especially painful after the players and coaches reviewed film of the game.
“Honestly, we felt like we beat ourselves,” he said. “After watching the film, there were a lot of touchdowns we left out on the field and a lot of plays in general that could have changed the outcome of that game. So the biggest thing for us was to go out there and play football and be ourselves and stop thinking too much and just play.”
The Bears have transformed themselves during their three-game winning streak. On offense, they increased their scoring output from 13.0 points per game during their first six games to 25.3 in their past three and rushed for 149.3 yards per game and five touchdowns during the three-game run compared with 93.8 yards per game and three scores in the first six games.
The defense has also thrived. After opponents averaged 23 points in the first six games, Morgan State allowed 20.7 points in its three wins. And compared with the first six games when opposing offenses threw for 204.5 yards per game and nine touchdowns, the unit has limited the past three opponents to 144.7 passing yards per game and only three scores.
In the victories at Norfolk State and South Carolina State, the Bears overcame fourth-quarter deficits. Senior middle linebacker Lawrence Richardson said those games fortified the players’ resilience.
“I believe we didn’t really play four quarters of football, but being able to stay together through the ups and downs and just getting back to neutral, and just sticking to that has helped,” he said. “If we are down, we understand that there’s still time left on the clock.”
Saturday’s game at Greene Stadium in Washington will pit a Bears defense that ranks first in the MEAC in yards allowed per game (300.3) against a Howard offense that leads the conference in yards gained per game (389.3). Wilson pointed out that the Bison are led by graduate student quarterback Quinton Williams, who leads the league in passing yards per game (201.5) and touchdown passes (16).
“We definitely have got our work cut out for us,” Wilson said. “This is a Howard team that has played some very good competition in every ball game. So it’s going to be pretty exciting. We’re going to live up to the challenge. We’ve got a few days to prepare for the challenge.”
An added storyline to the game is that many players on both teams hail from Maryland and Washington and are familiar with each other. There might also be some lingering bitterness from Howard’s celebration of a 35-6 thumping in last year’s season finale at Hughes Stadium.
“It didn’t sit well,” Richardson said. “I didn’t even want to shake the other team’s hand after the game. That’s what they came here to do, and that’s what they did. Now just being able to have the same outcome but reversed with us being able to celebrate on their field is what I’m looking forward to.”
Morgan State at Howard
Saturday, 1 p.m.
Radio: 88.9 FM