MONTGOMERY — Jacksonville State’s football team got in the marching band’s way to start its Saturday in Montgomery. The Gamecocks spent the rest of the night getting in their own way.
Two crushing fumbles late, a blocked field goal, a questionable onsides kick gone bad, a blown kickoff coverage and 14 penalties doomed the sixth-ranked Gamecocks in the second FCS Kickoff in Cramton Bowl.
No. 14 North Carolina A&T took advantage and beat JSU 20-17, ending the Gamecocks’ four-year run of regular-season victories against FCS competition.
“A lot of that’s my fault,” fifth-year JSU coach John Grass said.
JSU had won its previous 41 regular-season games against FCS competition and dominated statistically Saturday. The Gamecocks (0-1) outgained the Aggies (1-0) 403 yards to 148.
Quarterback Zerrick Cooper, making his first JSU start after transferring from Clemson, completed 24 of 38 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns, 49 yards to Daniel Byrd and 40 to Josh Pearson. He threw for 266 yards and both scores in the second half.
“I was getting comfortable,” he said. “I believe in the first half, I was a little anxious in my first college game here at Jacksonville State.”
Cooper gathered himself, but this was a day when little seemed to go as planned, starting in pregame. Elements of the football were on the field when the Marching Southerners’ time to perform arrived, and the marching band refused to yield. The two units became intermingled as the band formed its pregame show.
Cooper’s big second half ended with a crucial fumble. He took just 1:24 to pass the Gamecocks from their 20-yard line into scoring position but lost the ball when Daryl Johnson sacked him on second down and 18 from the Aggies’ 18.
Antoine Wilder recovered, and A&T killed the final 17 seconds.
“I put that on me,” Cooper said. “I should’ve thrown it. I saw the receiver come open. I just held on too long.”
Grass blamed himself for getting “greedy,” saying he should’ve sent the field-goal unit out for a wouldbe tying field goal.
“It was one of the stupidest calls I’ve ever made,” he said.
Then again, Grass saw A&T’s Kiaundric Richardson block Cade Stinnett’s 41-yard field-goal attempt on fourth-and-one, two possessions before, with 4:11 to play. Grass said he considered going for the first down in that situation, as he attempted to do in a similar situation at the end of the third quarter.
A false start doomed the Gamecocks on the first fourth-and-one, and Stinnett missed a 51-yard try.
As for fourth and one from the Aggies’ 24 late, “you make some decisions and start second-guess yourself a lot,” Grass said. “It’s like throwing the football on the other one. You run the ball there and kick that one, you probably go” to overtime.
In between Stinnett’s blocked field goal and Cooper’s fumble, A&T’s Amir McNeil recovered Pearson’s fumble at the JSU 47 with 2:14 to play.
“I’ve just got to keep the ball high and tight,” said Pearson, who caught eight passes for 147 yards on the night. “We work on that every day.”
There was more blame to go around, starting with JSU’s special teams. Malik Wilson returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown at 5:57 of the third quarter, immediately after Cooper’s touchdown pass to Byrd put JSU up 10-7.
Getting “house-called” on a kickoff weighed on Grass’ mind when he called for an onsides kick, following Cooper’s touchdown pass to Pearson that gave JSU a 17-14 lead at 4:49 of the third quarter.
JSU’s Lajarret Ford recovered, but JSU was flagged for offsides and interference. A&T took the interference penalty and the ball at JSU’s 36, setting up Lamar Raynard’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Elijah Bell to make it 20-17.
“We probably should’ve just kicked it deep again or sky-kicked it, one of the two, and give ourselves a little bit better position,” Grass said. “I made a lot of mistakes. I take the blame for that.”