JSU rallies to chop No. 23 Lumberjacks in AQ7 opener

JACKSONVILLE – No. 22 Jacksonville State stormed back late to claim a 28-24 homecoming victory over No. 23 Stephen F. Austin on Saturday at Burgess-Snow Field and goes into a much-needed bye week preparing for the top-ranked FCS team in the nation.

The Gamecocks snapped a two-game skid and improved to 3-3 overall with a win in their AQ7 debut. The AQ7 is a one-year football alliance between the ASUN Conference and the Western Athletic Conference with the winner earning the seven-team alliance’s automatic qualifier to the FCS playoffs.

Josh Samuel scored the go-ahead touchdown a 4-yard run with 1:53 to go and Malik Feaster sealed the win moments later when he intercepted a Stephen F. Austin (3-3, 0-2) pass. Feaster had two key pass breakups, forced a fumble that led to Jacksonville State’s first score and finished with 11 tackles.

“I thought our guys played with a lot of heart and a lot of character,” said Jacksonville State head coach John Grass. “That was a very talented football team we beat tonight.

“I thought the first half might have been the best half of football we’ve played. With our back against wall, our guys just battled. What a special drive to take the lead at the end of the game.”

Jacksonville State led 21-7 at halftime, then saw the Lumberjacks score 17 straight points to go ahead 24-21 with 5:48 remaining.

The Gamecocks’ offense answered with a game-winning 75-yard march. Zerrick Cooper hooked up with a clutch 25-yard completion to PJ Wells on third-and-15, then Samuel ran 18 yards into Stephen F. Austin territory.

A targeting call against SFA gave JSU a first-and-goal at the 4 and Samuel ran in two plays later to make it 28-24.

“We had a great game plan and knew it was going to be a four-quarter game,” said Samuel, who finished with 104 yards on 17 carries. “We executed and played as a team.”

JSU’s defense produced the first points when All-American safety Nicario Harper scooped up a fumble caused by teammate Feaster and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown. It was the Gamecocks’ FCS-best fourth defensive score this season and seventh since the start of the 2020 campaign.

Alen Karajic’s extra point put Jacksonville State ahead 7-0 with just over a minute elapsed.

Harper made his presence felt again on the Lumberjacks’ next series.

Harper picked off SFA quarterback Trae Self’s pass near midfield and returned it 37 yards to the 12. The Gamecocks made Harper’s fourth career interception pay off when Zerrick Cooper strolled into the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown to finish off the three-play drive.

Karajic’s extra point made it 14-0 with 11:48 on the clock in the first quarter.

Punter Jack Dawson pinned the Lumberjacks at their 1 late in the second quarter and the defense forced a three-and-out. Taking over at the SFA 42, Cooper ran 23 yards to move the Gamecocks into the red zone and then completed the drive three plays later with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Ahmad Edwards on a crossing pattern.

Cooper’s 67th career touchdown pass and Edwards’ third TD reception of the year made it 21-7.

Linebacker Stevonte Tullis recorded a game-high 13 tackles to lead the Gamecocks, followed by Feaster’s 11 stops.

The schedule doesn’t get any easier after next Saturday’s open date as Jacksonville State travels to Huntsville, Texas, to face defending FCS champion and current No. 1 Sam Houston State (5-0) on Oct. 23. Kickoff at SHSU’s Elliott T. Bowers Stadium is set for 2 p.m.

JSU is 5-5 all-time against the Bearkats, including a 62-10 victory in their last meeting in the 2015 FCS semifinals.

“I’ve never coached a team that needs an off week more than this one does,” said Grass. “We’re looking forward to getting some guys healthy.”

Postgame Quotes

Head Coach John Grass 
Opening Quotes: 

“I think that was a statement win. I’m just proud of our guys. We played with a lot of heart and a lot of character tonight. We’re looking forward to the off week though. We knew it was going to be tough, Stephen F. Austin has a really good and a really talented, young football team. So we think we beat a really good team tonight. In the first half, we played maybe the best half of football so far. We knew it was going to be a long game though. But we battled and now we’ve got to build off this win, try to get healthy this week, and get ready to play Sam Houston.” 

On the Success of The Last Go-Ahead Offensive Drive: 

“The big third-down play by P.J. (Wells) was huge. It was that one play that kind of sparks a drive. We had three timeouts, so we were able to be really patient on the drive. We didn’t want to score too quick, so we wanted to run the ball some. I thought the offensive line played really well on that drive to give Josh and Uriah some good runs. We just had to have that spark to start it and I thought it was huge when P.J. made that first play.” 

On Establishing the Run Game: 

“We wanted to play better upfront and be able to run the ball. So I thought we were able to do that today. I thought Josh had a really good game, it was great to see Uriah (West) back in the lineup and I thought Ron had a really good first half too. If we would have executed better in the third quarter, we could have done some more with them offensively. So there are some things that we can build off of this week and correct moving forward. We knew we had to win and we found a way to win it.” 

On Nicario Harper’s Impact on the Defense: 

“You can’t put a price tag on him being in the lineup. We lose Jeremiah Harris in the first game of the year and it’s huge, it’s hard to replace him. It hurts our depth without him in the lineup, so we’ve got to stay healthy. Even getting everyone back, we’re still thin, so it’s definitely good to have Nicario back in the lineup.” 

Jacksonville State Postgame Notes – Stephen F. Austin
October 9, 2021 • Burgess-Snow Field at JSU Stadium • Jacksonville, Ala.

  • JSU Captains: Redshirt-senior linebacker Umstead Sanders and redshirt-junior running back Josh Samuel.
  • JSU won the toss and elected to defer for the fourth-straight week.
  • The Gamecocks are now 2-6 all-time against Stephen F. Austin, defeating the Lumberjacks for the first time since a 22-16 victory at home on Oct. 1, 1998.     
  • Head coach John Grass is now 71-24 at the helm of the Gamecocks.
  • JSU’s win in the opening game of AQ7 (ASUN/WAC Challenge) play moves the Gamecocks to 1-0 in league play and into a tie atop the conference standings.  
  • Since its move to Division I in 1995, Jax State is now 20-6 in conference openers.
  • Redshirt-sophomore Nicario Harper scooped up his second career fumble on the fourth play of the game and raced 55 yards the other way for the first score of the game.
  • Harper’s touchdown fumble return was JSU’s fourth defensive score of the season for the most among FCS programs this year.
  • Redshirt-senior Zerrick Cooper scored his 85th career touchdown on a three-yard run late in the first quarter to pull him within four of Eli Jenkins’ school-record of 89 scores as a Gamecock.
  • JSU allowed just 94 rushing yards to SFA on Saturday, the fewest since holding Murray State to just 28 yards on the ground on April 11, 2021.
  • Redshirt-junior Josh Samuel led JSU on the ground with 104 yards rushing for his fourth career 100-yard game.
  • Junior cornerback Malik Feaster registered a career-high 11 tackles.
  • Redshirt-junior linebacker Stevonte Tullis led JSU’s defense with a career-best 13 tackles.
  • JSU improves to 13-16 all-time against teams from the state of Texas
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