JACKSONVILLE – If the celebration on Burgess-Snow Field at JSU Stadium following Jacksonville State’s 35-28 overtime ASUN win over Kennesaw State didn’t prove what the win meant for the Gamecocks, then perhaps the smell of cigar smoke was the true indication.

Jacksonville State head coach Rich Rodriguez showed up at the postgame media conference puffing on a victory cigar. His players were in the locker room celebrating with their own cigars.

This one was big for the Gamecocks (5-1 overall, 1-0 ASUN).

“I asked the seniors, when I had them over to [my] house to pick one cigar game,” Rodriguez said. “To a man, they said Kennesaw. They reminded me last night (and asked) did I get the cigars. Yes we did, we got 200 of them. They were thinking about that as soon as we got in the locker room after the game. These guys put in a lot of work. A day like today, it’s so rewarding to see them smile.”

It certainly took a lot of work to earn those smiles on Sunday. It took extra work, in fact.

The winning touchdown was a thing of beauty. It came on 2nd-and-9 from the 11-yard line on the first possession of overtime. Quarterback Zion Webb rolled right, bought some time, and zipped a pass into the right corner of the end zone. Sterling Galban dove for the ball and dragged his foot on the turf while also putting a hand down before tumbling out of bounds. Referees on the field called it a no-catch, which Rodriguez said he initially thought was accurate, before replay officials took a look. It took several minutes before it was ruled a touchdown.

“It was kind of a natural, bang-bang play,” said Galban, who was originally forced out of bounds on his route during the play but came back on the field. “I knew it was overtime and I knew  Zion was going to give me a chance. Before that, I told him to trust me, trust the receivers, we’ll make a play for you.”

Jacksonville State still had work to do, and the defense ended it quickly. Kennesaw State quarterback Jonathan Murphy dropped back to attempt a pass on first down. He didn’t get fully into his drop before Jacksonville State defensive lineman Jackson Luttrell hit him and knocked the ball free. Gamecock defensive end J-Rock Swain quickly pounced on the football to end the game.

“Oh man, that’s probably the best feeling I’ve ever had on the football field,” Luttrell said. “I knew I beat him clean. I was just trying to get the sack. I don’t know if y’all saw it, I missed one (earlier) it made me sick. My job was to get him to the ground. I didn’t know I got the ball out until J-Rock came up with it. I looked around and thought, ‘What in the world?’”

It definitely was a surprising end to what was an afternoon filled with ups and downs for both teams.

Jacksonville State’s defense was solid for most of the day against a Kennesaw State offense that generally eats up yards and drains the clock. On Saturday, the Owls held the football for 40 minutes and three seconds but were limited to 283 yards on 76 plays.

“Without question the way our defense hung in there was the difference in the game,” Rodriguez said.

At times, the Jacksonville State offense and special teams didn’t make it easy for the Gamecock defense. The Gamecocks had a pair of muffed punts that set up short scoring drives in each half and turned the ball over four times on offense.

Webb took the opening snap of the game, ran for a first down and put the ball on the turf. Officials ruled his was down but the call was overturned in the replay booth. The final Jacksonville State snap of the half resulted in a Webb interception.

It was that kind of first half for the Gamecocks. They had four first half turnovers, failed to score on offense and fell into a 21-10 halftime hole.

About the only first half highlights for Jacksonville State was a 45-yard field goal by Alen Karijic and a punt blocked by Cole Fuller and returned 11 yards for a touchdown by Amon Scarbrough. Those two things allowed the Gamecocks to take a 10-7 lead but the Owls scored the final 14 points of the half.

Things changed drastically in the third quarter. Kennesaw State ran 12 plays and gained 17 yards in the third quarter without getting a first down. Jacksonville State ran 12 plays for 173 yards in that 15-minute span and scored on a 1-yard run by Anwar Lewis, a 21-yard field goal by Karajic and a 42-yard touchdown pass from Webb to Keishoen Jarrett. The touchdown from Jarrett, followed by a two-point conversion pass from Webb to Ahmad Edwards, gave Jacksonville State a 28-21 lead with 1:03 left in the third quarter.

It appeared the game would end that way. Kennesaw State strung some first downs together late in the fourth quarter but a sack by Gamecock defensive lineman Chuck Taylor put an end to the threat. Kennesaw State punted the football and it looked like the Gamecocks would have chance to drain the clock. But punt returner Michael Pettway let the ball slip through his hands and the Owls recovered at the 5-yard line. Three plays later, Murphy battled into the end zone and the extra point tied the game with 3:14 left.

Kennesaw State had a chance to win it but missed a 45-yard field goal with 19 seconds remaining. The overtime period belonged to the Gamecocks.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever had that many turnovers and won,” Rodriguez said. “Guys kept playing hard, it’s meaningful to them, the crowd was fantastic, the weather was super. It’s a great day to be a Jacksonville State Gamecock.”

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email steve.irvine@1819news.com.

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