HAMPTON ——On a day when Hampton continually struggled to get out of its own way, it was North Carolina Central that wound up making the biggest mistake.
The Eagles celebrated too soon.
Ultimately, though, it was Hampton's Jamal Wilson with the ball at the bottom of the pile. Three plays later, Jeremiah Schwartz bulled into the end zone from a yard out to lift the Pirates past the Eagles 30-27 at Armstrong Stadium and seal Hampton's first homecoming victory since 2006.
"When I saw that play, the first thing I thought about was the Bethune game," Pirates coach Donovan Rose said, referring to Hampton's controversial loss Sept. 22 at Bethune-Cookman, when Isiah Thomas' apparent game-winning touchdown reception as time expired was overturned on video review. "I'm thinking, Oh, no, not again.
"But the thing I'm proud of is that, no matter what happened out there today, we still found a way."
The Pirates (4-3, 2-2 MEAC) also injected themselves more firmly than ever into an increasingly wide-open MEAC title picture. Since Thursday night, three of the four conference teams ahead of Hampton — Norfolk State, North Carolina A&T and South Carolina State — all suffered defeats.
"Our chances just got a whole lot better," Pirates linebacker Delbert Tyler said. "We just have to keep on winning."
The Eagles didn't make it easy on Hampton. Hampton didn't make it easy on Hampton, either — the Pirates were penalized 21 times for 166 yards, with several of the infractions coming with game-altering consequences.
"It's crazy, and I can't take it anymore," Rose said of his Pirates, who began the day averaging 102 yards in penalties. "I promise you, they're going to pay for those penalties. They guys who committed them, they're going to wish they never heard of me."
To their credit, though, the Pirates also overcame obstacles that were beyond their control. The most significant came in the third quarter, when starting quarterback David Legree left the game with a shoulder injury. True freshmen Travis Champion had to step in for his first live snaps.
Champion responded by completing all five of his passing attempts for 47 yards while running the Pirates' offense like a veteran.
"He gets the game ball," Rose said. "He was just so cool and calm out there."
Rose added that he doesn't know the extent of Legree's injury but considers him questionable for Saturday's visit to Savannah State. Legree passed for 298 yards and a touchdown on 26-of-35 passing before he left.
Champion helped the Pirates rally from a one-point fourth-quarter deficit, as his two-point conversion pass to Jamaal Brewton after Chisholm's one-yard TD run gave Hampton a 24-17 lead with 6:47 to go.
It appeared as though that lead would hold up until Central's Michael Johnson's 36-yard TD pass to Jonathan Nicely pulled the Eagles (1-6, 0-4) even at 24 with 1:54 left.
In overtime, Oleg Parent cashed in the Eagles opening series with a 28-yard field goal, setting the stage for the wild finish.
"We've still got so much stuff to clean up," Rose said. "But the bottom line is we got the win."