Jacksonville State coach John Grass gathered his team into a loose huddle inside Doak Walker Stadium late Saturday night only moments after they’d pulled off arguably the most stunning upset of the young football season, beating Florida State 20-17 in Tallahassee. Down 10 points at the start of the fourth quarter, the Gamecocks came roaring back, winning on an improbable 59-yard touchdown pass as time expired.
The little FCS program from North Alabama had finally done it. After years of punching above its weight and coming up short of taking down the Goliaths of college football, JSU had not only beaten an FBS team, but a Power 5 program as well.
Instead of heading into the dressing room to celebrate, players and coaches stayed on the field, soaking in the historic win. There were hugs and tears all around. And in the midst of it all, Grass spoke up, telling his players how proud he was of them.
Then athletic director Greg Seitz busted in.
“Hey!” he shouted. “We just beat Florida State! And they had to pay us $400,000 to get that L!”
If you want to talk about the spirit of college football, this was it. There were joy and pettiness and heartwarming stories sprinkled throughout. JSU didn’t pack up and board a charter flight home that night, which is commonplace among more well-funded programs. Instead, the players, coaches and staff returned to their hotel, watched highlights until the wee hours of the morning and loaded onto buses to make the 5½-hour drive home.
They stopped somewhere in Georgia and got lunch — pizza and sub sandwiches. Teammates passed a phone around the bus when a reporter called, each person trying to make sense of the unimaginable end to the game.
First on the line was the quarterback, Zerrick Cooper. Clemson fans will remember him as the former four-star prospect the Tigers signed back in 2016. Two years later, he transferred and was all but forgotten. On Saturday, he became JSU’s all-time leading passer.
Cooper laughed as he recalled his winning touchdown pass. The thing is, he said, he didn’t actually see the ball cross the end zone. He saw his pass get caught by Damond Philyaw-Johnson around the 20-yard line, but then he looked up at the Jumbotron and watched the clock expire. Dejected, he figured the Gamecocks had come up short.
“The rest,” he said, “is a miracle.”
Next to get handed the phone was Philyaw-Johnson, who played his part of that miracle by catching Cooper’s pass and running the remaining 20 yards to pay dirt thanks to a key block from teammate Ahmad Edwards. Duke fans will remember Philyaw-Johnson as their former receiver/return specialist. After graduating, he entered the transfer portal. Ironically, the school he wanted to go to coming out of high school and then again after getting his degree was Florida State, but it never showed serious interest.
Philyaw-Johnson chose to go to Jacksonville partly because it was close to his home in Pensacola. His mom, a hotel house-keeper, had never been able to see him play a college game in person before Saturday night. The 11-hour drive to Duke was too far and money was always too tight. But she was there in Tallahassee, crying as her son became the hero of the night and earned a measure of vindication against the team he rooted for since he was a child.
“I felt like I had to prove something to myself and them as far as why they should have taken me,” he said.
Last on the line was Edwards, the receiver who threw the key block for Philyaw-Johnson. Like a lot of players at Jacksonville State, Edwards was overlooked coming out of Thompson High School in Alabaster, Alabama. He didn’t have a single Power 5 offer and played sparingly his first two years at JSU before developing into a second-team all-conference selection last season.
Edwards’ determination showed during the final play against Florida State. A lot of receivers would have stopped the moment the ball didn’t come in their direction. But Edwards saw Philyaw-Johnson catch the pass 11 yards ahead of him as well as the two Florida State defenders poised to make the tackle. Edwards immediately ran in their direction, throwing a shoulder into the chest of a defensive back to clear a path for Philyaw-Johnson to the end zone.
Asked which play he enjoyed more — the block or his touchdown catch earlier in the fourth quarter that made it a one-possession game — Edwards didn’t hesitate.
“I’m gonna say the block,” he said, “because I’m a team guy.”
You want to talk about hustle, Grass said, and that’s Edwards in a nutshell. When Grass goes to teach young players about why they should never give up on a play, that clip of Edwards’ block will be heavily featured, he said.
But if you want to talk about something special, Grass said, that’s Philyaw-Johnson. Grass got a lump in his throat as he recalled seeing Philyaw-Johnson and his mom embrace after the game. It couldn’t happen to a better kid, Grass said.
“That is college football at its best,” he said.
A year ago, Jacksonville State went into Tallahassee and gave Florida State all it could handle for three quarters before running out of steam and losing by 17.
Only a week ago, the Gamecocks lost to UAB 31-0, marking a not-so-triumphant return after playing two seasons in a calendar year.
Grass said his team was devastated after both of those losses, and on Saturday they responded and accomplished the unthinkable.
“They rose to the challenge,” he said. “We played our butts off and I’m very, very proud of the way guys battled.”
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