Howard’s Cause Is Helpless Against Superior Eagles

“If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says. At the end of the game, in my book, we’re gonna be winners.”

– Norman Dale

In the 1986 basketball classic Hoosiers, Norman Dale coaches a small town basketball team in Hickory, Ind. Having overcome tremendous odds, the scrappy underdog squad manages to reach the regional finals, with a spot in the state tournament on the line. Prior to the game, Hale gathers his team in the locker room and delivers his famous speech, telling his players that there are more important things than getting the victory.  

Howard University football (0-1) might benefit if head coach Gary Harrell delivers a similar message to his players before they emerge from the tunnel on Saturday to take on their second straight FBS opponent, Boston College (1-0). Last week, Appalachian State (1-0) throttled the Bisons 49-0, amassing a whopping 663 yards of total offense, including 376 yards on the ground. Howard, an FCS team, put up equally poor numbers on offense—the team gained only 172 yards of total offense with just 36 yards on the ground.  This week, they square off against the Eagles, one of only four FBS defenses to allow fewer than 100 total yards in its first game, and whose offense centers around its bruising rushing attack. Under the circumstances, moral victories might be the only positives Howard can walk away with from this game.

Football season hasn’t always been so bleak for Howard. Last season, the team won its final four games and featured an impressive offense led by dynamic senior QB Greg McGhee. McGhee broke the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s record for total offensive yards in a career with 10,168 yards, earning the MEAC’s 2014 Conference Player of the Year award by racking up 28 total touchdowns and a team-leading 847 yards on the ground. He frequently won, too, leading Howard to at least five wins in each of his four seasons, landing a spot with the Canadian Football League’s B.C. Lions.

Prior to McGhee’s arrival, the Bison had won just four games total across the 2008, 2009, and 2010 seasons. Looking to avoid a similar regression, the program turns to redshirt freshman QB Kalen Johnson. A dual threat, Johnson looks to fill the role of McGhee in Howard’s spread offense. To support the novice under center, the coaching staff counts on two senior weapons: RB Aquanius Freeman and WR Matthew Colvin. Despite the presence of these veteran safety blankets, Johnson struggled in his first game, with just 119 passing yards and -3 rushing yards. Freeman only totaled 24 yards on the ground and Colvin had just three catches.

While the competition will not be any easier this week, in the spirit of moral victories, there are some things the offense can do to have at least a modicum of success against BC. First, with his speed, Johnson should end up on the ground far less often than Maine QB Dan Collins, who appeared to hit the turf nearly every other pass attempt. The Howard offense features quite a bit of motion and play action, in addition to read option plays. Beneath BC’s stellar defensive numbers lies a bit of trouble with over pursuing such plays, a fact Maine exploited a few times last week. To build Johnson’s confidence for the rest of the season against more evenly matched conference foes, the coaching staff should try to draw up a few new plays. By dressing up its formations, Howard might be able to gain more than 15 yards on a drive, something they managed only twice against Appalachian State, maybe even leading to the first touchdown scored against the Eagles in 2015.

On the other side of the ball, Howard figures to struggle mightily on defense this season, much as it did in 2014. Last year, the team allowed over 5,000 yards of offense in its 12 games. Most alarmingly, it allowed nearly 180 yards per game on the ground. With a severely weakened front seven this season, which will miss star LB Devin Rollins and a host of defensive linemen, Howard must resign itself to the fact that Jonathan Hilliman and Tyler Rouse will run wild on Saturday. The Bison are particularly vulnerable to the big play, allowing a less than flattering six yards per play in 2014 and giving up four touchdowns of more than 20 yards last weekend. Their secondary knows that BC will want to build QB Darius Wade’s confidence on longer throws—given the team’s defensive deficiencies, this provides BC with the perfect game to try and air out the ball downfield. Here, the moral victories for Howard would be to hold BC to fewer yards than Appalachian State compiled and to make Wade nervous in the pocket a few times.

Given the usual poor defense and a new offense no longer capable of bailing out its struggling teammates, Howard figures to struggle mightily on Saturday. But if they leave the tunnel at peace with this, they might actually enjoy the experience of seeking moral victories and playing before 30,000 spectators, taking the lessons of Norman Dale to heart.

Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor

September 10, 2015