By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
BALTIMORE, MD. — Someone mentioned the name Tom Brady on Thursday night as they watched Delaware State quarterback Nick Elko complete pass after pass against the Morgan State defense, on the way to a nationally-televised 28-23 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference victory at Hughes Stadium.
There were back-shoulder completions to receivers like Travis Tarpley and Justin Wilson, perfectly-threaded aerials between defenders and beautifully-timed seems pattern that split the secondary.
Elko may never reach the heights of that New England Patriots Super-Bowl-winning passer, but for a night the redshirt senior was on the top of his game.
After missing on his first pass attempt of the night, Elko converted 17 straight passes, with the help of his fine cast of receivers, breaking a Delaware State record of 15 in a row, established by Vashon Winton in 2005.
And Elko directed five consecutive scoring drives as the Hornets (5-3, 4-1) built a 28-14 lead between the second and third quarters.
"Elko has been a player ever since he has been in the league," said Morgan State coach Donald Hill-Ely, whose team dropped to 3-5 and 2-3 with its third consecutive loss.
But even though this QB product from nearby Odenton, MD. and Arundell High School was 33-of-43 for a career-high 398 yards with two scores and even with Tarpley and Wilson combining for 20 catches and 243 yards, the Hornets needed some defensive work in the fourth quarter to make all of that work hold up for a key victory.
DSU might have held a 502-286 in total offense and a 35-1/2-to-24-1/2-edge in time of possession, but it wasn't until the Hornet defense forced backup Morgan State quarterback Seth Higgins out of bounds and five yards short on a fourth-down scramble with 1:26 remaining that Elko and company could relax.
"I wanted to stretch the field there and come underneath," said Hill-Ely. "The receiver was open, but we had a protection problem and our quarterback made the wrong decision to run."
The win allowed the Hornets to stay alive in the chase for the MEAC championship and the automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs that goes with it.
Pretty heady stuff for a Delaware State squad that finished 3-8 overall and 1-7 in the MEAC last season under then-first-year coach Kermit Blount, dropping eight straight games at one point.
Expectations may have been low for many as the Hornets headed into this campaign, but not for Elko and his teammates, who worked exceptionally hard in the off-season to change a program that hadn't experienced a winning season since going 10-2 and winning the MEAC in 2007.
"We knew going into the season we were good," said Elko, who has now gone 184 pass attempts without an interception. "We didn't know how good."
Part of the success, particularly on offense, is that the Hornets needed some time to grasp Blount's pass-oriented spread schemes, but there is more.
"It's just a maturity of our kids," said Blount, who moved from Winston-Salem State to Delaware State when the Rams decided to drop back down from Division I and the MEAC to Division II and the CIAA. "We think we've got some weapons and we're going to find ways to use them against you."
Blount knows that this Hornet team is still a work in progress, but he is thankful that redshirt seniors like Elko, Tarpley and Wilson have set a good example for the younger players in the program and for the work of new strength coach, Kerry Harbor.
"The MEAC picture we see, but we don't see," said Blount. "We still know we have to focus on one game at a time."
The Hornets dropped a heart-breaking 24-22 MEAC opener to Florida A&M, but have rebounded to win four consecutive games — DSU's longest winning streak since that 2007 championship year, when it won eight in succession.
Delaware State will be rooting hard for North Carolina Central to knock off league-leading Bethune-Cookman on Saturday in Daytona Beach, FL., considering the Hornets don't meet the Wildcats this year in the unbalanced MEAC schedule.
That would set up a showdown next week at NCCU for a share of first-place. The Hornets then host Hampton before ending the regular season at another one-loss MEAC squad, Howard.
Should DSU win out and get some help from NCCU, the Hornets could slip into the playoffs again.
And if Elko and his teammates keep ripping through opposing defenses, the Hornets just might prove to be hard to stop.