Coastal Carolina couldn’t exhale Friday until the final play of overtime at Hancock Whitney Stadium in Mobile, Alabama.
Grayson McCall’s 25-yard touchdown run on the first play of overtime proved to be the winning score that gave Coastal Carolina a 27-21 win at South Alabama in the 2021 regular-season finale.
It was perhaps the biggest play in a wild second half chock full of big plays, along with Silas Kelly’s sack of South Alabama quarterback Jake Bentley on fourth-and-3 that ended the game.
Massimo Biscardi hit the left upright to miss the extra-point attempt in overtime, but CCU’s defense ensured it wouldn’t cost the Chants at least 10 wins in the regular season for the second straight year.
CCU (10-2), which improved to 6-2 in the Sun Belt Conference a year after going undefeated in an 11-game regular season, now awaits a bowl berth. The Jaguars (5-7, 2-6) missed their opportunity to qualify for a bowl game.
“It’s a big deal,” CCU coach Jamey Chadwell said of a second straight 10-win season in just the program’s fifth year at the FBS level. “We obviously had high expectations this year, we wanted to win the [Sun Belt] championship and we didn’t do that, we didn’t do well enough in those two [losses] to do it. But it’s hard to win games, especially as our players learned this year, everybody was giving us their best shot. We were Mike Tyson when everybody was coming after him back in the day.
“And that’s challenging. It’s hard each week to stay up and stay motivated with all the different things going on and continue to fight. To do that, to have 10 wins with this group of people and the legacy and the impact they’ve had, that’s tremendous.”
Bryce Carpenter tied the score and forced overtime with 39 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter with a 2-yard run. It capped a 10-play, 82-yard drive in less than 4 minutes that was orchestrated by McCall.
Coastal’s final drive included a fourth-and-1 conversion on a 3-yard run run by Shermari Jones near midfield, as well as 34 combined yards rushing and receiving by Jones, three catches by Jaivon Heiligh and a pair of pass interference calls against the Jaguars.
The drive answered a big play with 4:24 remaining by the most productive wide receiver in the Sun Belt Conference, as Jalen Tolbert ran past CCU defensive back Lance Boykin for a 57-yard touchdown reception, and a two-point conversion pass gave South Alabama a 21-14 lead.
Tolbert had 10 catches for 191 yards to go over 1,400 receiving yards on the season.
Jones gained 211 yards rushing on 23 carries with a touchdown as part of CCU’s 315 yards rushing. McCall was 16-of-25 passing for 175 yards with a touchdown and interception.
Bentley threw for 354 yards but CCU held the Jaguars to minus-5 yards rushing on 23 carries. “He threw for a bunch of yards but when we needed to keep them out of the end zone we did,” Chadwell said.
Flurry of interceptions spark comeback
The turnover cloak hasn’t gotten much use this season on the Coastal Carolina sideline.
The Chanticleers entered Friday with six fumble recoveries and just three interceptions through 11 games this season. But they came in bunches at an imperative time.
Three interceptions of Bentley in less than 12 minutes in the third quarter, including two by safety Alex Spillum in 1:33, turned the tide in a game that Coastal trailed 10-0 at halftime.
A highlight-reel one-handed interception by super senior linebacker Silas Kelly — just the second pick of his career — at the CCU 5-yard line thwarted a drive by South Alabama that could have given the Jaguars a 17-0 lead, and led to the longest scoring drive in Coastal Carolina football history.
The Chants drove 95 yards in 19 plays over 9:27 of game time to pull within a field goal of the Jaguars on a 10-yard Heiligh touchdown catch with 2:24 to play in the third quarter. The drive is the program’s longest in terms of number of plays and second longest in terms of time.
CCU quickly got the ball back on an interception by Spillum on an overthrown deep pass, but running back Braydon Bennett fumbled an exchange from McCall on the next play to give South Alabama the ball at the CCU 19.
A tackle at the line of scrimmage for no gain on third-and-1 by CCU defensive lineman C.J. Brewer set up a fourth down, on which Bentley was pressured by freshman defensive end Josaiah Stewart on a pass attempt and Spillum intercepted a wobbly pass at the 3. A 15-yard penalty on the Jaguars for a late hit moved the ball to the CCU 18.
Two plays later, on the first play of the fourth quarter, Jones took an inside handoff, made a cut to the left once through the line of scrimmage and raced to the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown run to give CCU its first lead of the game, 14-10.
The interceptions give Spillum seven in his CCU career and are his first two of the season to go along with a pair of blocked punts that both went for touchdowns, including one of his own. Chadwell said Spillum had the flu this week and didn’t practice until Thursday.
“We didn’t know how much he was going to be able to play and what he could do,” Chadwell said. “He’s been through a lot and he’s made some fantastic plays for us at key times, and blocked punts, and people changed their whole punt schemes just because they’re worried about him.”
Bentley back from the abyss
In an apparent show of gamesmanship by the Jaguars and first-year head coach Kane Wommack, Bentley wasn’t listed on this week’s USA two-deep depth chart, yet he started and played the entire game.
Junior Desmond Trotter was listed as the starter on the depth chart, and freshman Eli Grainger was listed as the backup.
Bentley, a former South Carolina QB, transferred to South Alabama this season and is one of nine QBs in the country with a completion rate better than 70%. But he suffered a partially torn MCL in his left knee in the ninth game of the season and missed the past two games. He played with a brace on his left leg.
Trotter (6-3, 215), who has started 16 games at South Alabama, played the bulk of the ninth game and started the past two, completing 61-of-104 passes (58.7%) for 596 yards with five TDs and three interceptions.
Bentley completed 28-of-41 passes and threw two touchdowns to go with his three interceptions and 354 yards, and he was sacked five times, including three times by Stewart, who broke Tarron Jackson’s single-season CCU sack record by three with 13.
Chadwell said he knew Bentley would play, primarily because Bentley’s brother, Shuler, is an offensive analyst on the CCU football staff.
“You know his brother coaches with us so his brother told us he was playing,” Chadwell said. “Now we didn’t know how much he would play. We didn’t know if they were playing him for a series as his senior year, then go to the other guy. But they scored on the first drive, right, so I think they just said, ‘Hey, let’s roll with it.’ And he played really good in the first half.”
NFLers get passed by strong outings
Current or former NFL players Tarron Jackson, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Jerome Simpson and Matt Hazel were all passed in CCU’s record book on Friday, and former NFL All-Pro Mike Tolbert was nearly caught.
With their performances on Friday, Heiligh, Jones and Stewart all etched their names among CCU’s all-time leaders.
Heiligh caught six passes for 87 yards and a score to pass Hazel’s record for career receptions with 184 and Simpson’s record for career receiving yards with 2,731.
He’s 44 yards shy of Simpson’s single-season receiving yards record of 1,077, and is 11 catches shy of Bruce Mapp’s single-season receptions record of 71. Heiligh is third on the list with 65 last season, and holds CCU’s marks for single-game receptions with 13 and most 100-yard receiving games in a season (6) and career (11).
“Coming in I set myself a standard, and that was my goal was to break records here and be one of the best receivers here,” Heiligh said. “I can stand up with them and say I’m with them, I set a legacy just like them.”
Jones’ 211 rushing yards is now second on CCU’s all-time single-game list, sandwiched between 244 yards by Mike Tolbert in 2007 and 205 by Lorenzo Taliaferro in 2013. Jones joined the Chants last season as a junior college transfer and has been relied upon more in running back Reese White’s absence due to injury over the past four games.
Jones has 988 yards on 151 carries (6.8 yards per rush) this season with a team-high 13 touchdowns in just 10 games, as he missed two games and has battled turf toe.
“In that second half we got the run game going completely, and Shermari was a big part of that,‘ Chadwell said “. . . He just bought in and he’s been rewarded for that, for the year that he’s had. He’s played like an all-conference running back when we needed him. He’s really played well.”
Stewart, who is 6-2 and 245 pounds, recorded three sacks and an additional tackle for loss to break a tie with Jackson, a Philadelphia Eagles defensive end, for the most sacks in CCU history with 13.
His four tackles for loss also tied linebacker Maurice Simpkins for the single-season TFL record with 16, which Simpkins set in in CCU’s inaugural season in 2003.
“It means a lot. It shows my growth throughout the year, of me learning,” Stewart said. “But it always feels good to win. Whatever I can put into that win is going to mean a lot to me.”
All of Stewart’s TFL’s came at big times. With CCU down 10-0 in the second quarter, he tackled Kareem Walker in the backfield for a 3-yard loss on third-and-1 at the Jaguars’ 43 to force a punt, and he sacked Bentley with 30 seconds left in the half to convince the Jaguars to run the clock down to halftime.
He had two sacks in the fourth quarter, the first on third down forced South Alabama to settle for a field goal after reaching the 6, and the second on fourth down forced a turnover on downs at the USA 39 after the Jaguars intercepted McCall. The ensuing possession ended with a McCall fumble that led to Tolbert’s late go-ahead TD.
“He’s just an unbelievable young man and he’s just scratching the surface,” Chadwell said of Stewart. “And we needed those plays. . . . At the time we got those, those were huge. We needed some momentum plays. If he’s not an All-American, if he’s not freshman of the year and all those things, we need to see who’s voting.”
Senior outside linebacker Jeffrey Gunter, who is second on the team with 10 tackles for loss, left the game with an essentially non-contact leg injury and did not return.
Down and out
For a coach with a defensive background, Wommack — who spent 2018-20 as Indiana’s defensive coordinator — has a gambler’s mentality on offense.
While Chadwell has been selective and efficient on fourth down this season, Wommack has been more than willing to risk turning the ball over on downs, and the teams combined for eight fourth-down attempts Friday.
CCU was 2 of 3 Friday to move to 9 for 12 on the season for a 75-percent conversion percentage that has CCU in the top seven in the country.
South Alabama was 2 for 5 on Friday and is now 28 of 47 on the season for a 59.6-percent conversion percentage. The opening 12-play, 88-yard drive alone featured a converted fourth-and-6 at midfield and 8-yard TD pass on fourth-and-5.
Prior to Friday, Coastal’s failed attempts came on a fourth-and-12 at the Georgia Southern 18-yard line late in the fourth quarter when Chadwell didn’t want to risk a field goal attempt in poor conditions with a big lead, and a fourth-and-goal at the 1 in the second quarter of last week’s 35-21 win over Texas State.
With its second consecutive 10-win season accomplished, CCU now awaits a bowl invitation, which could be coming this upcoming week or shortly after the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game next Saturday between Appalachian State (9-2) and AP No. 23 Louisiana (10-1).
The Sun Belt has five guaranteed bowl berths this year — if it has at least five qualifying teams — including the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Lending Tree Bowl in Mobile, and three bowls that are staged by ESPN Events among a selection of eight of its bowls.
The two championship game combatants, CCU and Georgia State (6-5) are the four Sun Belt teams that are currently bowl eligible, and Troy (5-6) is the only other conference team that can become bowl-eligible and is at Georgia State on Saturday afternoon.
““There’s a lot to play for, not only these seniors but we still don’t have a bowl win under our belt,” McCall said. “So we’re chasing that, and just coming in and enjoying every day with these seniors because they’ve been around for so long it’s going to be different when they’re gone, we’re going to have a whole new team next year. So soaking in every moment with those guys is special.”