MONTGOMERY — As the game officials jogged out of the Cramton Bowl on Saturday night, one fan in about row 20 of the stands got his money's worth.
"Don't ever come back here!" the guy yelled, not drawing a reaction from the officials, who kept their heads down and kept jogging.
"How much did they pay you!" the guy continued.
Certainly there were some calls that Jacksonville State coach John Grass will question with the Ohio Valley Conference office Monday morning, but guys in stripes didn't cost JSU its season-opening game. (Yes, those officials were from the OVC. Believe it or not.) The Gamecocks couldn't get out of their own way in a 20-17 loss to North Carolina A&T in the FCS Kickoff.
Want proof? Consider this: JSU picked up 403 yards but allowed only 148. That's almost 3-to-1.
But they committed 14 penalties for 149 yards. They lost three fumbles, including two on their final two drives when JSU was driving for potential game-tying (or even game-winning) points.
North Carolina A&T was much more fundamentally sound on this night. The Aggies have a tougher defense than expected, and while their offense couldn't do much to hurt JSU without the benefit of the occasional Gamecocks penalty, they didn't kill themselves with flags. (A&T got 10 flags for 91 yards.)
Two of North Carolina A&T's three touchdowns included a point when the drive would've been over except for a life-extending JSU penalty. The third touchdown came on a 98-yard kickoff return when JSU left a hole as wide as the Tennessee River for Aggies kick returner Malik Wilson to sprint through.
If you want to beat up Grass for JSU's performance, go right ahead. That's what he did afterward in his postgame news conference. He did it all in his opening statement, which lasted about 4 minutes, 20 seconds.
"A lot of it was my fault," Grass said.
He added, "I made a lot of mistakes. Not a lot of smart coaching on my part."
On the penalties, he said, "I accept the blame for that. We're an aggressive team and we play through the whistle. That's the way we're going to play."
He did hint that he had a problem with the kick-catching interference penalty when JSU was up 17-14 and tried an onsides kick. He acknowledged that his team was offside on the play, but "there are some things in the game I can't comment on."
Grass said he called for it because of what JSU noticed about how A&T received kickoffs on game film. The Gamecocks thought the Aggies were vulnerable to an onsides kick, although Grass said he wishes they had kicked the ball deeper.
Considering that play set up A&T for its game-winning touchdown, Grass didn't look smart on that one, but it was a good call. Why not give it a try? Without the late fumbles, that would've been academic.
But the coaching move that Grass regrets most? It's the one with less than 30 seconds left when JSU had second-and-10 at the A&T 18-yard line. Grass chose to try for a touchdown, even though a field goal would've tied it and likely sent the game into overtime.
He called it one of the "stupidest calls" by him.
Not really. Why not at least try for a touchdown? JSU had zipped down the field and covered 62 yards in a half-dozen plays. Here's betting that A&T had been hoping JSU would try for the field goal right away. Why not do what the other team doesn't want you to?
That didn't cost JSU this game. Those flags burned the Gamecocks as much as anything, and the officials aren't the ones to blame for that.