JACKSONVILLE — Blowing a 14-point lead, losing its first-ever AQ7 conference game and ruining homecoming with a third consecutive loss was not what JSU wanted headed into an open date.
Thanks to a season-saving fourth-quarter drive, that didn’t happen.
Josh Samuel’s 4-yard touchdown run with 1:58 to play regained the lead for the 24th-ranked Gamecocks, and Malik Feaster’s interception on the next play from scrimmage secured a 28-24 victory over No. 23 Stephen F. Austin on Burgess-Snow Field.
Samuel’s and Feaster’s late-game heroics followed Chris Campos’ 30-yard field goal, which put SFA up 24-21 with 5:48 to play.
JSU responded with an 11-play, 75-yard drive.
"You just can't describe the last drive," JSU coach John Grass said. "If you was going to choose the offense to have a drive, and you're just going to get one drive for them to have in the second half, it would've been that one."
P.J. Wells' circus sideline catch for 25 yards on third-and-15 from the JSU 20-yard line got it started. Samuel followed with an 18-yard run, and JSU was on its way after consecutive losses to Tennessee-Martin and Kennesaw State.
"That's the offensive-line coach," Samuel said, referring to Kevin Revis. "Right before we went on the field, we huddled up and said we have to put points on the board, and that's what we did."
JSU started the game-winning drive with three passes and finished with eight consecutive runs.
"Once we crossed the 50, I kind of figured they were getting tired," JSU quarterback Zerrick Cooper said. "I kind of took it upon myself to tell Coach Grass, even my position coach (Tyler) Allen, just to run the ball.
"That's what they did. They put their faith in me and listened to me, and we ran the ball down their throat that last drive."
Samuel finished with 104 yards rushing, and Wells caught four passes for 71 yards. Cooper accounted for 169 total yards and two scores as JSU improved to 3-3, but most importantly 1-0 in conference play.
SFA fell to 3-3, 0-2.
The Gamecocks left the Ohio Valley Conference after last season, joining the ASUN, a new FCS football conference. The ASUN combined with WAC survivors to form a one-year alliance that allowed all involved teams to retain access to an automatic playoff berth.
JSU came out of its first AQ7 contest victorious despite season-ending injuries to key players like safety Jeramiah Harris and a longer list of players playing with injuries, including what Grass described as "a rash of ankles."
"We just battled," Grass said. "You've got to build on the win and try to get healthy next week and go and play Sam (Houston State) out there. ...
"I've never coached a team that needs an off week more than this one does."
Here are three things we learned:
1. Cooper’s keepers
JSU’s choices at quarterback the past three seasons have been the passer, Cooper, and the runner, Zion Webb. Cooper’s season-ending injury in the fall gave Webb the chance to shine in the spring, and Webb led JSU to an OVC title and the second round of the FCS playoffs.
With Webb always a threat to pull it in the zone-read and passing games, JSU had an effective run game and red-zone offense.
Webb suffered a knee injury in JSU’s playoff loss to Delaware, and Cooper took the NCAA up on an extra COVID year. JSU’s offense hasn’t been as effective in the running game or turning promising drives into touchdowns, two problems that go hand in hand.
The Gamecocks rushed for 172 yards Saturday. Cooper rushed for 38 yards before subtracting 22 for three sacks, and he had timely runs.
JSU’s two first-half successes saw Cooper keep the ball. He kept on a zone read and found wide-open field to the right for a 3-yard touchdown run. He kept up the middle on another zone-read play for 23 yards to help JSU take advantage of position at SFA’s 42-yard line for a touchdown at the end of the second quarter.
The latter possession ended in Cooper’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Ahmad Edwards to give JSU a 21-7 lead at halftime.
Cooper also had a keeper to convert a third down on JSU’s game-winning drive.
"That's a big part of my game," Cooper said. "I have a major arm, and all of that good stuff, but using my legs, that's also part of my game.
"I don't get much respect for my legs, but at the end of the day, I have to do what the defense gives me."
When Cooper keeps, it’s effective. Then again, when Cooper keeps, it’s effectively a trick play.
It goes to the conundrum of the spread-style offense. Can it work as well with a quarterback who can’t or won’t run regularly?
Cooper clearly can run, but how much can JSU risk him? The Gamecocks nearly lost him to a knee injury in practice two weeks ago.
Is there a right balance? Is there a better balance than JSU has shown so far this season?
"We want to run him a little more," Grass said. "Hopefully, moving forward, we'll be able to run him a little bit.
"It just helps your run game so much. When they have to account for your quarterback, it kind of does help. He helped the run game tonight for sure."
2. Harper’s returns
All right, so Saturday saw All-American safety Nicario Harper play in his third game since sitting out the North Alabama game with a protective boot supporting his injured ankle. Like he did against Tennessee-Martin and Kennesaw State, he started the SFA game at nickel … a compromise that gets him on the field but allows him to cover less ground.
Turns out, Harper’s ankle didn’t keep him from covering ground.
His 55-yard fumble-return touchdown gave JSU a 7-0 lead and gave JSU its fourth defensive TD this season. Feaster, who returned a fumble an FCS-record 100 yards for a score against UNA, caused the fumble after SFA quarterback Trae Self completed a short pass to tight end Keshon Williams.
That’s how SFA’s first possession ended.
The second ended when Harper, who moved back to safety, cut off a Self lob and returned the interception 37 yards to the SFA 12-yard line, setting up Cooper’s 3-yard touchdown keeper to make it 14-0.
"He pretty much was eyeing down the receiver, or eyeing to the side he was going to throw it to," Harper said. "I just did my job.
"I feel I could've scored. I should've scored. I was kind of tired from the first drive, so I didn't give out. I should've scored that, though."
Harper had a fumble recovery for a touchdown, an interception to set up a touchdown and 92 yards in returns by 11:48 of the first quarter.
Grass said Harper's ankle is "a lot better."
"It still gave him some pain during the week and stuff and limited him, prep wise, but he's getting closer," Grass said.
3. Feaster, this and that
JSU’s offense has struggled to finish promising drives lately. Saturday, the Gamecocks struggled to sustain them.
Until the Gamecocks’ game-winning drive, they got no points out of any possession that started on their side of midfield. JSU’s two offensive touchdowns to that point came on possessions that started at the SFA 12- and 42-yard lines, the first after a Lumberjacks turnover.
There were lots of reasons, most notably a fumble near midfield when Samuel bobbled a quick pitch late in the third quarter.
Negative plays early in the third quarter stuffed drives before they could get started.
Penalties have continued to be a JSU woe, the most egregious example Saturday coming on D.J. Coleman’s conduct call that helped SFA’s game-trying drive. He headbutted an SFA player after a play, giving the Lumberjacks first down at JSU’s 23.
Korbyn White’s 10-yard touchdown run tied the game 21-21 with 14:52 left in the fourth quarter, completing a drive that started after Samuel’s fumble.
JSU’s defense had just mounted a goal-line stand before that, with Feaster knocking down Self’s pass to Lawton Rikel in the back of the end zone. Samuel’s 36-yard run got the Gamecocks off of their goal line.
Feaster blew a coverage on Self's 31-yard touchdown pass to Josh Thompson to bring SFA within 21-14 at 11:53 of the third quarter, but Feaster's fourth-down pass breakup in the end zone, forced fumble on Harper's touchdown and game-clinching interception more than made up for it.
On the interception, Feaster said he planned to jump the short route, knowing Harper was over top.
The breakup in the end zone on fourth-and-three in the third quarter kept SFA from tying the game. Feaster said he got a clue what was coming when the Lumberjacks hiked the ball just ahead of a timeout whistle before returning to the field to run the fourth-down play.
"They hiked the ball, and the guy did an inside release," Feaster said. "I already knew I had to play inside, because he was wide out. I just sat on the inside when he did his release."