Jacksonville State rallied to beat ETSU 34-27 in the first round of the FCS playoffs Saturday night at Burgess-Snow Field, taking advantage 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 league championship for ETSU (8-4), which was making its second playoff appearance ever and first in 22 years.
Jacksonville State (9-3) will play at Maine on Saturday in the second round.
Shaq Davidson caught three touchdown passes from Zerrick Cooper for the Gamecocks.
The Bucs showed they belonged right from the start, using a balanced offense and an opportunistic defense that picked off two passes to take a 20-10 lead at halftime.
The Gamecocks, who are making their sixth consecutive playoff appearance, then scored the next 24 points.
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 but hit Holmes with a pass while getting clobbered, a play that drew 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 got the ball back on their 18 with 1:39 left but couldn’t mount one last challenge.
Davidson’s second touchdown, which came 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.
Kelly’s left leg was placed in an air cast, and he clapped for his teammates as he was 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 stalled at the 5, but ETSU had a lead 6 minutes, 45 seconds into the game.
The Bucs held the Gamecocks in check for most of the first quarter, but two big plays gave Jacksonville State the lead.
Jaelen Green broke free for a 21-yard run and on the next play, Davidson caught a 37-yard TD pass.
ETSU regained the lead on the final play of the first quarter when safety Titus Tucker returned an interception 60 yards for a TD.
Cooper overthrew a receiver across the middle and Tucker hauled it in before taking 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 2½ minutes later with a leg injury.
Stennett’s 28-yard field goal pulled Jacksonville State back to even at 10.
THREE IN A ROW FOR WICK
Tight end Evan Wick suddenly became a huge part of the Bucs’ offense, catching passes on three consecutive plays. The first was a 22-yard reception on third-and-5. Two plays later, he caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from Herink for a 17-10 lead.
BY THE NUMBERS
Herink was 17-of-39 passing for 260 yards. Jacob Saylors was ETSU’s leading rusher with 82 yards on nine carries, and Holmes had 77 yards on 18 attempts.
Green rushed for 121 yards on 15 carries for the Gamecocks. Cooper was 20-for-32 for 226 yards.
MISSING IN ACTION
The Bucs were without their two Temple transfers. Linebacker Jared Folks, a first-team all-conference selection, and backup quarterback Logan Marchi were out after being injured during practice this week.
JD Griffith started in Folks’ place and led the Bucs with nine tackles.