Howard slogged through a penalty-riddled rivalry game to defeat host Brainerd 34-6 Friday night thanks to an outstanding performance by senior Eric Johnson, who excelled in a matchup that had even more meaning as the Hustlin' Tigers played to honor hospitalized teammate Calvin James.
Johnson rushed 23 times for 214 yards and scored four touchdowns for Howard (1-1), including a 74-yard interception return to go with three rushing scores.
"I had to make some plays to support my guy C.J.," Johnson said of the teammate he said is struggling with heart problems. "He's going through some tough times and is in a fight for his life.
"Every game is important, but I felt this game was even more important for him to show that we support him."
Things started sluggishly for both teams, but Brainerd put together a long drive and got to the Howard 7-yard line before quarterback Xiyeer Lattimore fumbled and the Hustlin' Tigers recovered.
The game was a sloppy affair on both sides of the ball with a combined 31 penalties. After the fumble, Howard drove to the Brainerd 18 before three straight flags backed the Hustlin' Tigers all the way back to the 36 before they turned the ball over on downs.
"There were way too many penalties. I don't understand it," Howard coach John Starr said. "We play the same kids and run the same plays we did last week, but then we had a third as many penalties as tonight."
The Hustlin' Tigers got on the board with 6:18 left in the half on a 1-yard run by Johnson, who carried the load on the seven-play, 52-yard drive all on the ground. Johnson finished the first half with 12 rushes for 99 yards.
The penalties weren't the only thing slowing the game down. With 3:02 remaining in the first half and Howard leading 7-0, the stadium lights at Eddie Lambert Field abruptly shut off, delaying the game for 30 minutes.
After the lights came back on, Johnson got in the action on defense. The senior picked off a Xiyeer Lattimore pass and returned it more than 70 yards for the Hustlin' Tigers' second score.
Lattimore did hit LaDerrion Freeman for a 45-yard touchdown pass for the Panthers' lone score, but he was only 7-for-17 through the air and missed several open receivers.
In the second half, the Hustlin' Tigers continued to punish Brainerd on the ground, with Johnson running at will and scoring two more times. Devonte Smith scored the other Howard touchdown.
Brainerd (0-2) struggled to move the ball despite chances to open up the passing game.
"Howard football is about body shots," Starr said. "I grew up in an era when Joe Frazier was a big-time boxer, and when you give people enough body shots they'll break at some point. And that's our philosophy going into football — just keep giving them body shots."