Oct. 9—JACKSONVILLE — Blowing a 14-point lead, losing its first-ever AQ7 conference game and ruining homecoming with a third consecutive loss was not what JSU wanted headed into an open date.
Thanks to a season-saving fourth-quarter drive, that didn't happen.
Josh Samuel's 4-yard touchdown run with 1:58 to play regained the lead for 24th-ranked Gamecocks, and Malik Feaster's interception on the next play from scrimmage secured a 28-24 victory over No. 23 Stephen F. Austin on Burgess-Snow Field.
Samuel's and Feaster's late-game heroics followed Chris Campos' 30-yard field goal, which put SFA up 24-21 with 5:48 to play.
JSU improved to 3-3, but most importantly 1-0 in conference play. SFA fell to 3-3, 0-2.
The Gamecocks left the Ohio Valley Conference after last season, joining the ASUN, a new FCS football conference. The ASUN combined with WAC survivors to form a one-year alliance that allowed all involved teams to retain access to an automatic playoff berth.
Here are three things we learned:
1. Cooper's keepers
JSU's choices at quarterback the past three seasons have been the passer, Zerrick Cooper, and the runner, Zion Webb. Cooper's season-ending injury in the fall gave Webb the chance to shine in the spring, and Webb led JSU to an Ohio Valley Conference title and the second round of the FCS playoffs.
With Webb always a threat to pull it in the zone-read and passing games, JSU had an effective run game and red-zone offense.
Webb suffered a knee injury in JSU's playoff loss to Delaware, and Cooper took the NCAA up on an extra COVID year. JSU's offense hasn't been as effective in the running game or turning promising drives into touchdowns, two problems that go hand in hand.
JSU's two first-half successes Saturday saw Cooper keep the ball. He kept on a zone read and found wide-open field to the right for a 3-yard touchdown run. He kept up the middle on another zone-read play for 23 yards to help JSU take advantage of position at SFA's 42-yard line at the end of the second quarter.
The latter possession ended in Cooper's 18-yard touchdown pass to Ahmad Edwards to give JSU a 21-7 lead at halftime.
Cooper also had a keeper to convert a third down on JSU's game-winning drive, an 11-play, 74-yard march.
When Cooper keeps, it's effective. Then again, when Cooper keeps, it's effectively a trick play.
It goes to the conundrum of the spread-style offense. Can it work as well with a quarterback who can't or won't run regularly?
Cooper clearly can run, but how much can JSU risk him? The Gamecocks nearly lost him to a knee injury in practice two weeks ago.
Is there a right balance? Is there a better balance than JSU has shown so far this season?
Cooper holds JSU career records for passing yards and touchdown passes, but the majority of that came with a different receiver corps. Does JSU's current talent mean the Gamecocks need more keepers from their quarterback?
2. Harper's returns
All right, so Saturday saw All-American safety Nicario Harper play in his third game since sitting out the North Alabama game with a protective boot supporting his injured ankle. Like he did against Tennessee-Martin and Kennesaw State, he started the SFA game at nickel ... a compromise that gets him on the field but allows him to cover less ground.
Turns out, Harper's ankle didn't keep him from covering ground.
His 55-yard fumble-return touchdown gave JSU a 7-0 lead and gave JSU its fourth defensive TD this season. Feaster, who returned a fumble an FCS-record 100 yards for a score against UNA, caused the fumble after SFA quarterback Trae Self completed a short pass to Keshon Williams.
That's how SFA's first possession ended.
The second ended when Harper, who moved back to safety, cut off a Self lob and returned the interception 37 yards to the SFA 12-yard line, setting up Cooper's 3-yard touchdown keeper to make it 14-0.
Harper had a fumble recovery for a touchdown, an interception to set up a touchdown and 92 yards in returns by 11:48 of the first quarter.
Harper left the game with an apparent hamstring injury with 54 seconds left in the third quarter.
3. Overcoming woes
JSU's offense has struggled to finish promising drives lately. Saturday, the Gamecocks struggled to sustain them.
Until the Gamecocks' game-winning drive, they got no points out of any possession that started on their side of midfield. JSU's two offensive touchdowns to that point came on possessions that started at the SFA 12- and 42-yard lines, the first after a Lumberjacks turnover.
There were lots of reasons, most notably a fumble near midfield when running back Josh Samuel bobbled a quick pitch late in the third quarter.
Negative plays early in the third quarter stuffed drives before they could get started.
Penalties have continued to be a JSU woe, the most egregious example Saturday coming on D.J. Coleman's conduct call that helped SFA's game-trying drive. He headbutted an SFA player after the play, giving the Lumberjacks first down at JSU's 23.
Korbyn White's 10-yard touchdown run tied the game 21-21 with 14:52 left in the fourth quarter, completing a drive that started after Samuel's fumble.
JSU's defense had just mounted a goal-line stand before that, with Malik Feaster knocking down Trae Self's pass to Lawton Rikel in the back of the end zone. Samuel's 36-yard run got the Gamecocks off of their goal line.
Sports Writer Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter: @jmedley_star.