Jacksonville State rallied to beat ETSU 34-27 in the first round of the FCS playoffs Saturday night at Burgess-Snow Field, taking advatage of a late and fatal turnover.
The Bucs were a yard away from potentially tying the game when All-Southern Conference running back Quay Holmes fumbled into the end zone with 2:38 left in the game. It essentially ended a remarkable season that included a share of the Southern Conference championship for ETSU.
It was the Bucs’ second playoff appearance ever and their first in 22 years. They ended with an 8-4 record.
Jacksonville State improved to 9-3 and will play at Maine on Saturday in the second round.
Shaq Davidson caught three touchdown passes from Zerrick Cooper for Jacksonville State.
The Bucs proved they belonged right from the start, using a balanced offense and an oppotunistic defense that picked off two passes to lead 20-10 at halftime.
The Gamecocks, who were making their sixth consecutive playoff appearance, then scored the next 24 points to seize control.
With the Bucs down 27-20 midway through the fourth quarter, Marlon Bridges’ 32-yard interception return for a touchdown gave the Gamecocks a two-score lead.
ETSU didn’t flinch.
One play after Austin Herink hit Ari Werts for 23 yards on fourth-and-8, Herink scored on a 10-yard quarterback draw to make it 34-27 with 5:30 left. It was the Bucs’ first score since the final play of the second quarter.
The ETSU defense forced a three-and-out and Domenique Williams returned a punt 22 yards, setting the offense up near midfield with 4:22 left.
Another fourth-down play helped the Bucs get into position. Herink bobbled the snap and hit Holmes with a pass while getting clobbered for a roughing the passer penalty.
Two plays later, Holmes ran around left end and the ball was knocked out of his hands into the end zone. Jacksonville State recovered.
The Bucs had one last chance, getting the ball back on their 18-yard line with 1:39 left but couldn’t mount one last challenge.
Davidson’s touchdowns came on plays of 37, 5 and 13 yards. His second one, on the Gamecocks’ first drive of the third quarter, cut the Bucs’ lead to 20-17.
Cade Stinnett’s 27-yard field goal then forged a 20-20 tie. Davidson then scored again for a 27-20 lead.
Bucs receiver Kobe Kelley was injured early in the fourth quarter. After a play ended, Kelly was down near the line of scrimmage. His left leg was place in an air cast and he clapped for his teammates as he was being rolled off the field on a stretcher.
CHANGE OF FORTUNES
The Bucs had a golden opportunity to retake the lead early in the fourth quarter, but Jacksonville State’s Connor Christian tipped JJ Jerman’s 25-yard field goal, causing it to go wide right.
Jerman had made his last 14 attempts, including his first two on Saturday.
Jerman’s 22-yard field goal gave the Bucs an early 3-0 lead, but it was a missed opportunity to make an early statement. A 77-yard drive, in which the Bucs had Jacksonville State off balance, stalled at the 5-yard line.
Still, ETSU had the lead six minutes, 45 seconds into the game.
The Bucs held the Gamecocks’ offense in check for most of the first quarter, but two big plays gave Jacksonville State the lead.
First Jaelen Green broke free for a 21-yard run. On the next play, Davidson caught a 37-yard touchdown pass from Cooper. ETSU’s Jeremy Lewis appeared to have perfect coverage on the play, but couldn’t break up the pass.
ETSU regained the lead on the final play of the first quarter when safety Titus Tucker returned an interception 60 yards for a touchdown.
Cooper overthrew a receiver across the middle, which usually means bad news for the quarterback. Tucker, playing center field, hauled it in and took off up the left sideline. He picked up a convoy of blockers and dived into the end zone for a 10-7 ETSU advantage.
Tucker had to be helped off the field 2 1/2 minutes later after suffering a leg injury.
Stennett’s 28-yard field goal pulled Jacksonville State back to even at 10-10. The Gamecocks used a pair of 33-yard runs on their second scoring drive.
THREE IN A ROW FOR WICK
Bucs tight end Evan Wick suddenly became a huge part of the team’s offense. He caught passes on three consecutive plays. The first one was a 22-yard reception on third-and-five. Two plays later, he caugh a 3-yard touchdown pass from Herink for a 17-10 lead.
BY THE NUMBERS
Herink finished 17 of 39 for 260 yards. Jacob Saylors was ETSU’s leading rusher with 82 yards on nine carries. Holmes finished with 77 yards on 18 attempts.
Green rushed for 121 yards on 15 carries for the Gamecocks. Cooper completed 20 of 32 passes for 226 yards.
MISSING IN ACTION
The Bucs were without their two Temple transfers. Linebacker Jared Folks, a first-team All-Southern Conference selection, and backup quarterback Logan Marchi were both out after being injured during practice this week. The team does not issue an injury report during the season.
JD Griffith started in Folks’ place and led the Bucs with nine tackles.