By Jimmy LaRoue
HAMPTON, Va.- After three first half turnovers and with the rain from Hurricane Sandy beginning to fall, Hampton was clearly in need of a spark, struggling to move the ball against Savannah State.
Defensive back Khambrel McGee gave it to them, and he saved not only a touchdown, but perhaps the game, and the Pirates got 188 yards in 33 carries from Jeremiah Schwartz and held on for a 21-13 victory on Saturday.
"There was no doubt in my mind that we had to run it, because you saw when we did throw, we had three interceptions," coach Donovan Rose of Hampton said.
"I didn't see no need to try and do that. I knew that they were going to put nine and 10 (players) in the box, but he grinded and got the yards."
However, McGee changed the momentum of the game.
With Savannah State driving after blocking a Hampton punt, McGee intercepted a pass by quarterback Antonio Bostick near the goal line and returned it 73 yards to the Tigers.
That set up a 12-yard touchdown run by Antonio McCloude to put Hampton up, 7-3, with 4:08 in the second quarter.
"I thought that was the play that changed the game," Savannah State coach Steve Davenport said of the long interception return. "We lost a little bit of patience there after the blocked punt, actually.
"We tried to take a shot, and that's the name of the game. (Bostick) underthrew the ball and (McGee) made a heck of a play and a heck of a return that woke those guys up a little bit."
On Hampton's next possession, Schwartz, who came into the game with 606 yards rushing, beat the blitz behind seal blocks along the edge and ran down the left sideline for a 61-yard touchdown, putting the Pirates up, 14-3, with a little over four minutes left in the first half.
"Our game plan was to go in and try and stop him, and other than the long run, I thought we did a pretty decent job against him," Davenport said. "But the one play that you let him go is the one that ends up beating you."
The game started ominously for Hampton (2-3, 2-5 in the MEAC), as two of freshman quarterback Jaylian Williamson's first three passes were picked off, prompting a quick hook from Rose in favor of redshirt junior Najee Tyler.
Williamson was getting his first start after starting quarterback Travis Champion suffered a concussion in the second quarter of last week's loss to N.C. Central.
But after Taylor threw an interception early in the second quarter, Rose went back to Williamson and the Pirates went to a steady diet of Schwartz, who powered his way to 153 first half rushing yards.
McCloude set up Schwartz's second touchdown of the game, recovering a fumbled snap by Tigers' punter Jacob Thomas on the one-yard-line. Schwartz ran it in on the next play. Taurean Durham's extra point put Hampton up, 21-3, with 3:43 left in the third quarter.
But on the strength of Bostick's arm, Savannah State rallied. From his own 27, Bostick threw three straight completions to get the Tigers in scoring range before Juwhan Smith-Arnold finished off the drive with a one-yard touchdown run, closing the Pirates' lead to 21-10.
Savannah State (1-7, 0-5) stalled on its next drive, but Hampton James Butts fumbled Thomas' 54-yard punt, giving the Tigers the ball on the Hampton 20.
The Pirates held, forcing the second field goal of the day, a 29-yarder by Preston McCarthy, with 9:20 left in the game.
Hampton was unable to mount a drive but a 53-yard punt from Stovall backed Savannah State to its own 15. Bostick then mounted a 12-play, 74-yard drive before it stalled on the Hampton 5, where he was sacked by linebackers Charles Benning and Matthew Davis on fourth down.
Savannah State had one last chance after Hampton was forced to punt out of its own end zone, but a roughing the kicker call against the Tigers sealed the game for the Pirates.
"Just to have that win, to go out and have that chest-bumping a little bit, it just feels good to get another win," Schwartz said. "Our goal ... is to finish .500.
"Initially, coming in, we wanted to win a championship, (but) we realized we can't do it this year, so we want to set the foundation for next year for the guys."
NOTES: Jeremiah Schwartz rushed for more than 100 yards for the fifth time this season. ... Coach Donovan Rose said Travis Champion's concussion would keep him out at least through next week's game at Delaware St. ... Kellie Wells, a Hampton graduate who won a bronze medal in the 100-meter hurdles at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, conducted the coin toss as part of Hampton's Homecoming festivities. ... Although Savannah State caused three first half turnovers, it was only able to manage only a field goal.