KENT, Ohio — It seemed fitting that, at the end of a head-spinning week that started with a historic upset that garnered national attention, the Howard football team ended its ride with a moment of peace.
The Bison lost to Kent State, 38-31, Saturday, their second road game against a top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision opponent to open the season and their first game since pulling off one of the biggest upsets in college football history last weekend at UNLV. At the end, coaches and players knelt in prayer in front of their sideline as the sun set and a bell tolled at the other end of the stadium, once for each time a Kent State player ran by to mark the home team’s victory. It made the stadium feel like Howard’s own personal church.
Aptly, Coach Mike London and his players spent that time reflecting. In post-upset excitement last week, it was easy to define the state of Howard football by freshman quarterback Caylin Newton’s words: “Howard, it’s not a football school right now. It will be.”
Trailing 23-17 after giving up a safety, Howard recovered a Kent State fumble at its own 45-yard line. Newton and senior halfback Anthony Philyaw led the Bison to a third and four at the Kent State 10 when fullback Dezmond Wortham ran for a first down before stepping out of bounds on the 1-yard-line. Newton — whose brother is former NFL MVP Cam, and you can tell from his smile — then dove into the end zone and kicker Dakota Lebofsky gave the Bison the lead.
Howard had gone 3-19 over the previous two seasons, during which it lost to four FBS opponents by a combined score of 229-27. It received payouts reportedly totaling $890,000 for agreeing to play UNLV and Kent State. Entering Saturday’s fourth quarter, it appeared capable of taking a victory from both programs as well.
Kent State erased the gap less than two minutes into the final period when tailback Kesean Gamble muscled through the line of scrimmage for his own one-yard touchdown rush and quarterback Nick Holley scrambled for a two-point conversion to take the lead back, 31-24.
But the announced crowd of 20,312 at Dix Stadium alternated groaning and cheering with each swing of momentum. That Howard was the cause for fear — if only for a few minutes — was something Newton took pride in.
It fueled him to a four-yard touchdown run with 3:16 left in the game to put the Bison within a touchdown at 38-31, and rang in his ears as he chucked a fruitless Hail Mary pass that was intercepted on the final play.
“A lot of smaller schools don’t really believe that they can win,” he said. “And we believe in each other, and a lot of guys, we build off of our struggles. We fight for each other … It’s about representing, like Coach says, the front of your jersey and the back of your jersey. Representing Howard, the HBCU. ”
Newton shined at times Saturday. He showed off raw physical ability, if less of a command of his offense compared to Kent State’s Holley, a junior, and completed 9 of 22 pass attempts for 225 yards and a touchdown, along with two rushing touchdowns. Philyaw, the senior running back, had a game-high 167 rushing yards with a touchdown on 20 carries, and receivers Kyle Anthony and Jequez Ezzard each had at least 100 receiving yards.
On paper, Howard and Kent State weren’t too far apart. The Bison outgained the Golden Flashes 552 yards (226 passing, 226 rushing) to 399. They committed too many penalties — 13 for 134 yards — but those were offset by Kent State’s 13 for 132. All of those things make London feel proud, like he has something to build on ahead of next week’s game at Richmond, the team he led to the Football Championship Subdivision’s national title in 2008.
But after his first loss as Howard football coach, he wasn’t focused on that.
“Every day we’re competing, every game we’re competing to win football games. Every season, we’re gonna compete and try to win championships, that’s the mind set, there’s no other mind set,” London said. “This is not a moral victory, for being seven points short. We came here to win the football game. I’m continuing to try and create a culture like that, of expecting yourself to win. We’re in the game, too.”
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