The Gamecocks used a gadget play, a school-record five Griffin Thomas field goals and a safety to get past Division II North Alabama 24-21 in double overtime at JSU Stadium.
The win wasn’t secured until UNA kicker Michael Schuster missed a 37-yard attempt after getting a 5-yard boost after the Gamecocks (3-0) were flagged for calling an overtime timeout they didn’t have.
“Thankful to escape, really,” is the emotion JSU coach Bill Clark described when it was finally over nearly four hours after the opening kickoff.
Smaller-team upsets have been common on the college football landscape this season. Nearly a dozen FCS teams have beaten FBS programs in the first two weeks of the season and at least eight non-Division I teams have taken down their bigger brothers this year.
Griffin set school records by hitting five of six field goals in the game, breaking the mark set by Gavin Hallford against Alabama State in the 2007 season opener.
Griffin kicked field goals of 50, 42 and 44 yards in regulations. He hit a 26-yarder in the first overtime and a game-winning 20-yarder on the first possession of the second overtime. He had another 50-yard attempt partially blocked.
“It was a busy night, to say the least, but it turned out good from our perspective,” Griffin said. “The overtime was pretty nerve wracking, but we’re already down there in field goal position so you know you’re going to get a chance to kick it, so you’re obviously ready for that."
It was JSU’s fifth straight overtime win and UNA’s fourth straight overtime loss.
The Lions (1-1), looking to play up and stun the Gamecocks for the second time in 10 years, got the ball first in overtime and Schuster kicked a 28-yard field goal.
The Gamecocks took over and got to the UNA 13 before a holding penalty – one of the 17 penalties called on them in the game -- pushed them back. They got back to the UNA 4 on fourth down and settled on Thomas’ 26-yard field goal to force a second overtime.
The Gamecocks got all the way to the 3 with their second OT possession and seriously considered going for it on fourth-and-short, but sent out Thomas, who calmly kicked the go-ahead 20-yarder.
The Lions set Schuster to attempt a game-tying 42-yard field goal to force a third overtime, then had it moved up five yards when the Gamecocks called a timeout they didn’t have. Schuster’s attempt was wide right.
“It was a relief for me,” JSU linebacker Rashad Smith said. “I was ready to get out of there.”
The Lions tied the game with 13 seconds left in regulation when Luke Wingo threw a 5-yard pass to Lee Mayhall and Schuster kicked the extra point. Coincidentally, Mayhall slipped on a 2-point conversion pass over the middle earlier in the quarter that would’ve tied the game 13-13.
They went 70 yards in 11 plays after Thomas’ third field goal of the game put JSU ahead 18-11 with 3:13 to play.
The Lions appeared to get the touchdown earlier in the drive, but Jason Smith’s 17-yard catch along the sideline was ruled incomplete after one official initially threw his arms in the air signaling a score. One replay seemed to show Smith getting a foot in bounds before losing control of the ball, but JSU safety Brandon Bender said Smith “never had control” of the ball when he fell to the ground.
The Lions threatened to tie the game early in the fourth quarter. Wingo snuck in from the 1 to cap a 10-play drive that cut JSU’s lead to 13-11 with 11:04 to play.
The Gamecocks kept the Lions alive on the drive with several penalties. They were hit with a roughing the passer call when Wingo’s third-and-19 throw was stopped short of the yard to gain; on the next play Chris Coffey broke off a 42-yard run to get inside the JSU 10. They also got hit with an illegal substitution that nudged Wingo closer to the goal line.
JSU looked to have stopped the two-point conversion when Pierre Warren wrapped up Wingo in the backfield. But Warren was flagged for a facemask making the stop.
On the re-do, the Lions were called for a false snap and when the play finally got run, Mayhall slipped going over the middle and Wingo’s pass fell harmlessly incomplete.
The Gamecocks weren’t out of danger, but they got a lot of help from the Lions to breathe easier.
Freshman defensive back Philbert Martial inexplicably fair caught a JSU punt at the 1. The Lions called a time out, then got hit with a delay penalty once they returned to the field, and then fired a snap through Wingo’s hands out of the end zone for a safety to give JSU a 15-11 lead.
The Gamecocks worked the clock after fielding the free kick and Thomas kicked his third field goal of the game – a 44-yarder – to give them a seven-point lead with 3:02 to play.
JSU struck first in the game and in dramatic fashion. After an ineffective opening drive – a sign of things to come -- the Gamecocks attacked right after a takeaway, with Troymaine Pope throwing a 53-yard halfback pass to Markis Merrill for the opening score.
Merrill tip-toed along the sideline for a few yards after gathering his bearings and went untouched the rest of the way to the end zone.
They were the Gamecocks’ first first-quarter points of the season and first since late in the first quarter of last year’s UT Martin game -- the third from last game of the season. The 10 points they scored in the first quarter were the most since the Murray State game Oct. 27.
It was the Gamecocks’ biggest play from scrimmage in a game in which their offense struggled to put anything together.
“In our game plan we said we were going to throw a trick play in there, it just happened it was the fourth play of the game,” Jenkins said. “It layed out just like coach (John) Grass planned it … We got the ball to the perimeter and (Pope) acted like he was going to run it and then Markis came wide open and he let it fly.”
Merrill paid for his catch later in the quarter, though. He caught a pass from Jenkins in the open field and was crushed by senior defensive back Brion James.
Replays showed James hit Merrill squarely in the chest without leaving his feet. Merrill landed on his back and neck, held onto the ball, put his arms out in front of his body then lay motionless for several moments while the JSU medical staff rushed to his side.
He eventually walked off the field under his own power, but didn’t return to the game.
Afterward, the JSU players said he only sustained a cut on his chin.
The Gamecocks added two Griffin Thomas field goals later in the half.
Thomas attempted another 50-yarder later in the quarter, but it was partially blocked by Shaquille Smith.
One could say Smith was worth five points to the Lions, because in addition to blocking the field goal he scored a somewhat controversial safety on the first play of the second quarter when he sacked Jenkins in the end zone.
Replays appeared to show Smith wrapping up Jenkins between the 1 and 2 and spinning him into the end zone.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.