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Jacksonville State’s Hail Mary delivers latest FCS upset of season

It’s only mid-September and FCS teams have eight wins over Division I-A programs, highlighted by the Florida State upset.
Jacksonville State wide receiver Michael Pettway waves a flag on the field after the team's 20-17 win over Florida State on Saturday in Tallahassee.
Jacksonville State wide receiver Michael Pettway waves a flag on the field after the team's 20-17 win over Florida State on Saturday in Tallahassee. [ PHIL SEARS | Associated Press ]
Published Sep. 14
Updated Sep. 14

Greg Seitz has been at Jacksonville State for nearly three decades, through a Division II national championship, conference titles and Football Championship Subdivision playoff runs.

But the Gamecocks athletic director and longtime staffer has never seen anything quite as big as that walk-off Hail Mary to beat Florida State 20-17 on Saturday night.

“When you consider just where that program has been ... I think that probably in my mind is probably the biggest win in Jacksonville State football history,” Seitz said.

It may not have even the biggest FCS win so far this season, however. It’s only mid-September and FCS teams have eight wins over Division I-A programs, most notably Jacksonville State’s upset and Montana’s opening 13-7 win over then-No. 20 Washington.

It’s the most such wins in a season since FCS teams pulled off nine of them in 2017. And they’re just getting started, perhaps benefitting from spring seasons that served as defacto training camps.

FCS programs produced only two such wins last season, Jacksonville State’s win over Florida International and Tarleton State’s victory over New Mexico State — hardly earth-shaking outcomes.

The Gamecocks’ John Grass said FCS coaches may know their teams better having just recently finished another season.

“You feel like you just finished playing because you did just finish playing, but (it’s) not something we want to do every year,” Grass said.

Jacksonville State provided not only a huge upset of a three-time national champion, but a fantastic finish.

To Seitz, it was bigger than the 1992 Division II championship game victory, and the double-overtime upset in 2010 of Mississippi from the mighty SEC.

Jacksonville State players celebrate after a 20-17 win over Florida State.
Jacksonville State players celebrate after a 20-17 win over Florida State. [ PHIL SEARS | Associated Press ]

This was Florida State, winner of its third national title not so long ago in 2013. The Seminoles had won their first 26 meetings over FCS, or Division I-AA, teams, though they also trailed Jacksonville State early in last year’s meeting.

Zerrick Cooper launched the desperation pass deep to Damond Philyaw-Johnson, who hauled it in just inside the 20-yard line and made a quick cut on his way to a 59-yard touchdown. That followed a 97-yard touchdown march ending with just under five minutes left.

It was the same play call Jacksonville State had tried on the previous play, and coaches had urged Cooper to look for Philyaw-Johnson.

The game-winner was a landmark moment not just for the Gamecocks, who normally are quietly tucked away in the northeast Alabama town of Jacksonville, which has fewer than 13,000 residents.

It also was big for Cooper, a onetime highly rated prospect who spent two seasons as a backup for Florida State’s ACC rival Clemson. The three-year starter and senior suffered a season-ending injury in a win over Florida International last fall and missed the spring season.

Cooper said he has watched that final play “probably over 1,000 times.” Linebacker Stevonte Tullis figures he savored the moment until about dawn Sunday.

“I know I’m going to live with that for the rest of my life,” Cooper said, “and I’m going to be able to tell my kids about it.”

Philyaw-Johnson, who is from Pensacola, had a single catch for 1 yard in the first two games before that Hail Mary.

Jacksonville State joined the Atlantic Sun Conference in July after capturing its sixth Ohio Valley title in seven seasons. They’re in a transition year that includes schools moving to the Western Athletic Conference.

Jacksonville State collected $400,000 for the Florida State game but the win generated an abundance of priceless attention for the Gamecocks, typically overshadowed in the state by SEC teams Alabama and Auburn.

Seitz said the Web site’s traffic was 500 percent higher than normal Saturday night and Sunday morning. The Gamecocks woke up to their highlight on ESPN’s SportsCenter and the play topping the program’s top 10 list. It’s drawn more than 1 million views on social media.

It’s the type of free publicity Jacksonville State could never have afforded with a total athletic budget of about $18 million. And the memories, well, they will definitely endure.

“That play will be remembered forever as well as that game,” Grass said. “We go down in history and nobody will ever take that away from us.”