Photo: JSU’s Michael Matthews (21) gains yardage as North Carolina A&T’s Deion James (34) and Antoine Walker (9) close in during the Gamecocks’ 20-17 loss last Saturday (Aug. 25) in Montgomery. (Mike Goodson/Messenger)
By Mike Goodson/Sports Correspondent
Four turnovers and 14 penalties proved to be too much for Jacksonville State last Saturday (Aug. 25) in 20-17 season-opening loss to North Carolina A&T at Montgomery’s Crampton Bowl.
JSU fumbled four times, losing three, and threw one interception. The Gamecocks were flagged 14 times for 149 yards. Jacksonville State committed two turnovers and missed two field goals (one blocked) overt its final six possessions of the game.
“We just didn’t play well enough to make it happen,” said JSU head coach John Grass. “We should’ve kicked the field goal to go to overtime rather than going for it at the end of the game, and that one is on me. I got a little greedy trying to win the game, but we turned it over. That’s my fault. We turned it over the last two times we had it, and you can’t do that in those situations. We more than doubled them in total yardage, but then you go back and look at the penalties, the kicking game and turnovers. And that’s something I blame myself for, also.”
The Aggies, who are the defending Historic Black College and University (HBCU) national champions, brought the NCAA’s longest winning streak at 12 games into the game. North Carolina A&T is tied with University of Central Florida for the longest winning streak among FBS and FCS teams. The win was also the first win for head coach Sam Washington.
“I thought it was a hard-fought game, said Washington. “One of the things I must say is that is a very good football team at Jacksonville State. They’re very well coached. Coach Grass and his staff does a tremendous job; not just a good job, a tremendous job in preparing those kids for a ballgame. We’re just super excited that the ball happened to bounce our way a few times. Looking at these numbers, statistically you would think the win would’ve been in reverse.”
The first half was both a defensive struggle and a comedy of errors.
North Carolina A&T took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter when Lamarr Raynard fired a 24-yard touchdown pass to Zachary Leslie.
Jacksonville State scored its only points in the first half when Cade Stinnett nailed a 23-yard field goal with 3:55 left in the first half.
JSU took its first lead of the game when quarterback Zerrick Cooper hooked up with Daniel Byrd for a 49-yard touchdown pass to give the Gamecocks a 10-7 lead with 6:13 left in the third quarter. Cooper’s first career touchdown reception capped a three-play, 75-yard drive for the Gamecocks.
The lead was short-lived, as North Carolina A&T speedster Malik Wilson returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for the go-ahead score.
JSU regained the lead on its next possession with a quick three-play, 65-yard drive capped by Cooper’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Josh Pearson, who also scored his first career TD for the Gamecocks.
Jacksonville State appeared to have recovered a successful on-side kick attempt, but an interference to field the kick penalty on the Gamecocks gave North Carolina A&T the ball on the Gamecocks 36-yard line. The Aggies needed only five plays to regain the lead as quarterback Raynard Lamar tossed a 4-yard touchdown pass to Elijah Bell to put the Aggies ahead to stay.
North Carolina A&T defensive end Darryl Johnson, Jr., sealed the win when he sacked Cooper at the Aggies 23-yard line with 17 seconds left in the game. Johnson forced a fumble on the play and Antoine Wilder recovered the loose football to end the Gamecocks threat.
“I thought our effort was really good,” said Grass. “You have to tip your cap to North Carolina A&T. They played hard and played the game the way you’re supposed to play it. They were fundamentally sound and protected the ball, and there were times that we didn’t protect it. I’ve been saying it all summer; we knew it was a game that was going to go down to special teams and who turns it over, more or less.”
The Gamecocks host Mississippi Valley State on Sept. 8 at 6 p.m.