JACKSONVILLE, Ala. – Maybe it was the magic of Burgess-Snow Field, a venue that’s housed Jacksonville State’s 30-game home regular-season winning streak.
Perhaps it was the late-game brilliance of Gamecocks quarterback Zerrick Cooper.
Eastern Washington, which built a three-touchdown cushion in a marquee Football Championship Subdivision game Saturday, couldn’t stop either.
The fourth-ranked Eagles were held scoreless in the fourth quarter, allowing No. 17 Jacksonville State to use a touchdown run with less than a minute left to complete its 49-45 comeback victory in front of 20,000 fans.
Cooper was held in check most of the first half before using his arm and legs to help orchestrate an 11-play, 73-yard drive capped off by a short Michael Matthews touchdown run.
After being in control for the first three quarters, the Eagles were held to 12 yards in the fourth quarter.
The nonconference game – the STATS FCS Game of the Week – featured two of the country’s top signal callers in Water Payton Award candidates Cooper and EWU junior Eric Barriere.
Barriere completed 24 of 43 passes for 294 yards and five touchdowns, helping the Eagles jump out to 28-7 lead, but Jacksonville State bottled up the junior dual-threat during the late stages.
Barriere, who was sacked four times, was held to 78 yards through the air in the second half. His second interception, in the final minute, helped seal the Gamecocks’ win.
“We controlled the game for about 57 minutes, but 57 minutes isn’t the entirety of a ballgame,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said. “We will get better, and this game will not define us. We went on the road and played a game with a half-hour delayed start, and we played our butts off. We played really, really well, but we didn’t play well enough.”
Cooper, a Clemson transfer who helped spearhead Jacksonville’s 21-point fourth quarter, completed 14 for 31 passes for 249 yards and three touchdowns. He also had two rushing touchdowns.
“I personally think that was a statement game,” Cooper said. “The offense and defense were both up and down, but we were able to come together and pull out a win. I believe this game will take us far, but we’ve just got to keep moving this season.”
EWU running back Antoine Custer had a career-high 184 yards on 28 carries, boosting an offense that was potent (469 yards) for the most of the game.
Jacksonville State was held to 366 yards.
“It’s a bad feeling,” Custer said. “(Jacksonville State) made adjustments.”
Eastern Washington, a Big Sky Conference power, made the cross-country trek to face a team that’s won the last five Ohio Valley Conference titles.
For the first 15 minutes, it appeared the Eagles would not only end the Gamecocks’ home winning streak, but return to Cheney with a resounding, résumé-boosting road win over an unfamiliar foe.
Dre’ Sonte Dorton returned the game’s opening kick for a 90-yard touchdown. Thanks to a defense that yielded few big plays and forced a pair of turnovers, the Eagles had more possessions, allowing Barriere to throw first-quarter touchdown strikes to Andrew Boston, Jayson Williams and Jayce Gilder.
EWU flirted with a four-touchdown lead early in the second quarter with the ball in Gamecocks territory, but safety Marlon Bridges intercepted Barriere and returned it for a 67-yard touchdown.
“I told the defense if we didn’t let them score in the fourth quarter that we’d win the game,” Bridges said. “That’s just what happened.”
When Talolo Limu-Jones hauled in a 51-yard touchdown pass from Barriere late in the third quarter, the Eagles led 45-28 before Jacksonville State’s defense made its stand.
The Gamecocks held EWU to 1-of-8 passing in the final quarter. The Eagles also failed to continue their ground game’s early success, rushing for no yards on seven carries.
Special teams troubles also haunted EWU late in the game. When punter Trevor Bowens’ punt was blocked deep in EWU territory, Jacksonville State recovered at the Eagles’ 13 and scored four plays later to make it 45-42.
Linebacker Jack Sendelbach, who had a team-high 12 tackles, pointed the finger at himself and the Eagles’ defense.
“They threw some new stuff at us (in the second half), but it was mostly our fault,” Sendelbach said. “Whether it was our technique or being out of alignment, it wasn’t anything (done by Jacksonville State).”
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