MONTGOMERY – Jacksonville State quarterback Zion Webb, playing in a game for the first time, looked rusty at the beginning of the Gamecocks' weather-shortened 42-17 victory over 10th ranked Stephen F. Austin in the FCS Kickoff at the Cramton Bowl.

During his first three series, he had three overthrown passes, a lost fumble, and an interception which set up the opening touchdown. He misfired on seven of his first eight passes, certainly creating some message board anguish in Rich Rodriguez's first game as the Jacksonville State head coach.

Webb had an excuse. The 6-foot, 200-pound senior from Phenix City was playing in a game for the first time since tearing his ACL in the FCS spring season quarterfinals in 2020. Do the math, and that's 847 days between games.

"He was almost too fired up to begin the game," Rodriguez said. "He was throwing a pass from me to you as hard as he can throw it. The first five passes were like that. I was like, 'Calm down a little bit.' After Zion calmed down, he started making some good reads, made a couple of nice throws."

Webb, unable to come to the postgame press conference because he was feeling ill, finished 9-of-15 passing for 160 yards and was not sacked. He carried the ball 11 times for 59 yards with a career-best three touchdowns.

Those numbers essentially came in three-quarters of play. The game ended with 13:18 left because of inclement weather. The initial weather delay lasted for over an hour before the decision was made to end it.

The Atlantic Sun Conference issued the following statement: "After suspending play because of lightning with 13:18 in the fourth quarter with Jacksonville State leading 42-17 over Stephen F Austin, it was determined that the game could not be resumed without significant risk to the health and safety of the student-athletes. Per NCAA rules 3-3-3c(2) and with both institutions in complete agreement, the game was ended with the final score 42-17."

The sudden ending didn't overshadow the Gamecocks' complete effort, even though Rodriguez saw plenty of things to work on. The Gamecocks running game produced 285 yards and five rushing touchdowns, with Anwar Lewis gaining 100 yards on 12 carries and Matt LaRoche speeding his way to 90 yards on 10 carries with his first touchdown since he played for Georgia Southern in 2019.

Defensively, take away one big play, and the Gamecocks were solid. Safety Deco Wilson had eight tackles and his first career interception and the Gamecocks had nine tackles for loss and three sacks. The special teams also contributed when Cole Fuller fell on the football in the end zone after Stephen F. Austin punter Max Quick fumbled.

"Defense gave up one big play, rallied to the ball, had a big turnover, had some really neat blitzes to get them in long yardage situations," Rodriguez said. "I look at them on the field and go, 'Golly, we're not very big. But they're active, and they play hard. I thought we got settled down after the first half and second half played really good football."

However, it didn't start well.

With 1:57 left in the first half, Jacksonville State trailed, 17-7. By halftime, the Gamecocks led 21-7 and they had just seven offensive snaps in that span.

First things first, Stephen F. Austin built the advantage behind quarterback Trae Self, who threw touchdown passes of 1 yard to Darryle Simmons and 50 yards to Xavier Gipson.

The tone changed in a hurry. Webb started the switch with a perfectly placed long pass to junior receiver Sterling Galban, who turned the play into a 73-yard gain. On the next play, Matt LaRoche burst into the end zone on an 8-yard scoring run. Brenton King's extra point trimmed the deficit to 17-14 with 1:56 left in the half.

The Jacksonville State defense forced a quick three-and-out, and the Gamecocks got the ball back with 1:22 remaining. Two runs by LaRoche gained 33 yards, Webb connected with tight end Sean Brown for five yards and Webb finished with runs of seven and four yards to complete the drive. The Gamecocks had a 21-17 lead with 16 seconds remaining on the clock.

The quick finish was partly possible because of the quick tempo offense that Rodriguez installed.

"At times, but we can go faster," Rodriguez said when asked about the tempo. "As our guys grow up in the system, so to speak, we'll be able to play faster and faster and faster. The first game is always the hardest. Really the first season is the hardest. I think it has an impact."'

Things got worse for the Lumberjacks in the second half.

Webb led an 82-yard march on its opening possession of the second half. He had passes of 24 yards to Brown and 19 yards to Anwar Lewis on the drive and capped it off with a 2-yard touchdown run. Jacksonville State safety Deco Wilson had his first career interception on the ensuing Stephen F. Austin possession, setting the Gamecocks up near midfield. Lewis gained 38 of the 48 yards on the drive, and Webb capped it once again with a 2-yard scoring run.

The game was halted with 13:18 left in the fourth quarter because of lightning in the area.

"Really proud of my guys, didn't start off well, there was some adversity, but our guys hung in there," Rodriguez said. "There were a lot of reasons for our guys to hang their heads early, but they didn't. Great attitude coming back, great attitude in the second half."

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