Jacksonville State rolled up 403 yards of total offense but North Carolina A&T won the stat that mattered the most -turnovers. The 14th-ranked Aggies turned over the sixth-ranked Gamecocks twice in the final two-and-a-half minutes to secure a 20-17 win in the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff Classic at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery (The Gump), Alabama Saturday night.
The defending Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Champion and Celebration Bowl/defacto Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) National Champion North Carolina A&T extended their 12-game undefeated winning streak by snapping the defending back-to-back-to-back-to-back Ohio Valley Conference Champion Jacksonville State’s 41-game winning streak against non-FBS opponents. With the win, the Aggies were able to cut into the Gamecocks’ 2-0 series lead between the two programs.
Returning starting quarterback Lamar Raynard put the Aggies out front early with a 24-yard scoring toss to Zachary Leslie standing all by his lonesome on the sideline. Raynard didn’t have a stellar day throwing the ball but he did enough to keep the Gamecocks offense on the sidelines at least for the first half.
Clemson transfer Zerrick Cooper struggled early getting the Gamecocks’ offensive game going in the quarter. The Aggies’ defense shut down the run and kept the first-year starter on the run. Jacksonville State couldn’t crack the 50-yard line on four possessions.
A blocked field goal attempt by the Gamecocks’ special teams lit a small fire under the offense early in the second. Cooper led the offense down to the 2 before the Aggies’ defense rallied to force a 23-yard field goal from Cade Stinnett.
The second half looked nothing like the first. Jacksonville State head coach John Grass called a few more pass plays midway through the third quarter. “Offensively, we’ve got to be able to run the ball better,” said Grass. Cooper took to the challenge well completing 24 of 38 passes for 320 yards and 2 touchdowns. His first touchdown pass, a 49-yarder, to Daniel Byrd gave the Gamecocks a 10-7 lead.
It was celebration time for the Gamecocks as a few members of the kickoff team danced to the music blaring from the speakers in the Cramton Bowl. The dancing and celebrating lasted about 11-12 more seconds before Malik Wilson’s 98-yard kick return silenced the cheers from the red and white.
Jacksonville State took the punch and then delivered a flurry of their own over the course of the next minute. Cooper delivered two perfectly thrown balls back-to-back. His first, a 24-yarder to Shaq Davidson moved them into Aggies territory and a second -a 40-yard post to Josh Pearson- scored the go-ahead touchdown.
Have you caught your breath yet -wait. It’s not over.
No sooner than the flag bearer carrying the letter S had left the field after the score, then the Gamecocks special teams attempted a litter trickeration. Rather than tempting fate with the speedy Aggies returner, Stinnett bounced the ball to the waiting arms of teammate Lajarrett Ford who was immediately showered with attention -from the referees. The officials flagged the Gamecocks for off-sides and for interference with the Aggies’ ability to catch the kickoff.
The short kick coupled with the penalty gave the Aggies the ball at the Jacksonville State 36-yard line. Marquell Cartwright finally found a seam without a Gamecocks defender in it and exploded for a 21-yard gain. It wasn’t difficult to see that Raynard was trying to get Elijah Bell the ball on the drive. Bell had been blanketed all night long but Raynard went to him three times on the final four downs of the drive. Bell picked up a pass interference call on third and 9 to Raynard a little more time to work. It paid off on second and goal to go from the 4, Raynard found Bell at the goal line between two defenders. The stout junior from Wheeling, West Virginia made a tremendous effort to secure the ball that included pinning it on his hamstring while tumbling head-first into the end zone.
Noel Ruiz’s missed extra point following the Bell touchdown set up several dramatic events that marked the fourth quarter as an all-time cardiac special.
The Gamecocks moved the ball into NC A&T territory but penalties maligned the drive. Stinnett attempted a game-tying 51-yard field goal but it was wide right.
Stinnett attempted another would-be game-tying field goal, this time from 41 yards out but Aggies red-shirt senior linebacker Kiaundric Richardson blocked it. Red-shirt junior wide receiver Landon Smith alertly recovered the ball behind the line of scrimmage but was tackled short of the first down marker.
Two minutes later and with about two-and-a-half minutes to play, the Gamecocks had the ball again looking for a go-ahead or game-tying score. They got neither. Amir McNeil knocked the ball out of Josh Pearson’s hands after the red-shirt junior made a 23-yard catch just beyond midfield.
Game over right? Aggies run out the clock, right? Wrong.
Even though it was conceivable that with three timeouts the Gamecocks could stop the clock and get the ball back had the Aggies opted to run the ball three consecutive times. But that would have left maybe a minute on the clock in which to get into field goal position or attempt to win it all.
Jacksonville State fans got a better option. NC A&T rushed twice and then threw an incomplete pass that served as a surrogate timeout. The Gamecocks got the ball back at their 20 with 1:41 to play.
Back to the air where Cooper had been having tremendous success in the second half. Five straight completions and the Gamecocks were knocking at the gates on the Aggies 18.
Pucker factor on quadrillion right? You betcha.
MEAC pre-season All-American defensive end Darryl Johnson (6-foot-5, 232 lb R-JR) out of Camden County, Georgia beat JSU tackle Nuka Yobo (R-JR, Covington, GA) with a sprint rush and stripped the ball out of Cooper’s raised throwing hand. Antoine Wilder recovered the ball for the Aggies at the 23 with 17 seconds remaining.
Now it’s over right?
Yes, it was over. That was enough drama for an entire season, wasn’t it? No? You want more, don’t you? Greedy curs. You’ll have to wait until Thursday when Kennesaw State and Georgia State square off at Sun Trust Stadium in the first meeting ever between two of the newest football programs in the state. As always CORE360 Sports will bring it to you hot and buttered like a southern biscuit.
by Jake McDonald/CORE360 Sports