The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) representative for the HBCU National Championship game has been decided, as Howard University’s win over Morgan State University clinched their first ever Celebration Bowl berth.
Howard’s 14-7 victory over the Bears improved their record to 6-5 (4-1) and secured their title as back-to-back MEAC champions, following their shared title with North Carolina Central last year, where they did not advance to the championship game.
Due to a loss in their head-to-head against NCCU last season, Howard University had not been outright MEAC champions or represented in a Black national championship game in 30 years leading up to Saturday’s victory – during a season in which the Bison went undefeated prior to the NCAA Division 1-AA playoffs.
Howard University head football coach Larry Scott detailed the importance of the opportunity the Bison have in front of them, in relation to the last group to play on this stage.
“The historical perspective with that is every season takes on a life of its own… The opportunity to go win a Black national championship – that’s the blessing. Now all we have to do is prepare well and walk in the blessing.”
Saturday’s all-important matchup saw the Bison (as they have been much of this season) fueled by their rushing attack, led by running backs Jarrett Hunter and Eden James, as the pair combined for 198 yards on the ground.
Quarterback and team captain Quinton Williams was bullish on the running game’s importance to the Howard offense en route to jumping out to a 14-0 lead.
“The three backs we have in the backfield… they make my job a lot easier whether it’s the run game or the pass game. When things go wrong, I know I can turn to them,” Williams told The Hilltop.
The running back-by-committee style of offense that Howard has enacted this season featuring James, Hunter, and Ian Wheeler made a substantial impact Saturday, allowing the Bison to dominate time of possession with a near 40-minute clocking compared to Morgan State’s 20 minutes with the football.
Getting off the field is the other essential piece to dominating time of possession for a defense, and the Bison were able to hold the Bears to just 1-11 on third down, stifling any potential for long drives throughout.
“We prepare a lot on defense. We watch a lot of film, our coaches let us meet extra and guys sacrifice… that’s the biggest thing. Guys sacrificed to become one of the top defenses and that’s what allows us to perform this way,” preseason All-MEAC first-team defensive back Kenny Gallop Jr. explained.
Morgan State began to piece together a string of big plays to swing momentum in the third quarter, with two big-gain completions flung by Bears quarterback Tahj Smith, leading to a 5-play 87-yard touchdown drive with just under two minutes before fourth quarter action.
A quick 4-play outing by Williams and the Howard offense that resulted in a punt left the Bears in perfect striking distance to potentially tie or take the lead.
That potential amounted to just that… potential; as Howard’s suffocating defense did not allow a drive to last more than four plays for the remainder of the game, leaving the Bears without a chance to score.
An 8-minute drive to close the game spearheaded by clutch plays from James and Williams dashed Morgan State’s hopes of a comeback and secured the MEAC title for the Bison.
Coach Scott spoke about finishing close games, after being unsuccessful in doing so earlier in the year against opponents such as Hampton and South Carolina State.
“We understood the situation and what stood in front of us to win a championship. And the guys executed in that situation, and that’s what really good football teams do,” Coach Scott told The Hilltop.
Looking ahead, the Bison will play in the Cricket Celebration Bowl on Dec. 16 in Atlanta, Georgia, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) champion. The SWAC representative will be decided by their conference championship game on Dec. 2 between the Florida A&M Rattlers (10-1) and the Prairie View A&M Panthers (6-5)
Kenny Gallop Jr. spoke to what followers of HBCU football can expect from the team come December.
“We’re not just going to the Celebration Bowl just to go to Atlanta, we’re actually trying to win. We’re going to prepare, play, be physical, and we’re going to line up and play ball!”
Copy edited by Whitney Meritus