OXFORD – The deep belly laugh that rumbled across North Mississippi on Saturday afternoon originated in Indianapolis – at NCAA headquarters.
His request for immediate eligibility denied by the NCAA staff on Tuesday, then revived by a sub-committee on Friday, Oregon transfer quarterback Jeremiah Masoli had an impact on the season’s first game – in good ways and bad – but the defense that was supposed to carry Ole Miss on its back now offers only shoulders to cry on.
That defense disappeared in the second half, and Masoli became part of an historical SEC moment when Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) member Jacksonville State rallied from a 31-10 halftime deficit to beat the Rebels 49-48 in two overtimes before a crowd of 55,768 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The last time an SEC team lost to an FCS team was in 2004 when Maine won at Mississippi State.
“It will be important how we handle this in the next 48 hours,” said Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, who called it the worst loss of his career.
The Gamecocks (1-0), projected winners of the Ohio Valley Conference, had only 70 total yards at halftime – and trailed 31-10 – but finished with 355.
More importantly, they converted big play after big play and turned the ball over not once, while Ole Miss (0-1) gave it up three times.
Jacksonville State converted a fourth-and-11 on a 71-yard drive in the final 2 minutes, 49 seconds of regulation, then tied the game with a 2-point conversion.
It scored its second-overtime touchdown on fourth-and-15 on a 30-yard pass from true freshman Coty Blanchard, the second player in a two-quarterback system. When it could have kicked the single point and kept playing, Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe went for two, and the Gamecocks converted again, this time with a shovel pass at the heart of the defense.
“I don’t believe you could duplicate the circumstances again in 100 years,” Crowe said.
Blanchard was under pressure when he found Kevyn Cooper in the back of the end zone for the 30-yard score. A tackle, an incompletion, a turnover – almost anything except what happened – and the Rebels escape and regroup.
Instead, inexperience showed at a most inopportune time. In zone coverage junior college transfer safety Damien Jackson moved up toward the action, not staying back as the defensive play was designed. Blanchard found Cooper in the right corner of the end zone.
“In a three-deep coverage you stay as deep as the deepest man,” defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. “We had a young man come up for some reason, and the ball went over his head. In that situation the young man did not do his job.”
Jackson took responsibility for the loss.
“I’m at a loss for words,,” he said. “The only thing I know is it’s my fault. It should never have happened, and it won’t happen again.”
The mistake overshadowed a day in which Jackson led the Rebels with 11 tackles.
Offense was where the Rebels had question marks, but they sprinted to a 31-10 halftime lead with starting quarterback Nathan Stanley and Masoli making plays.
Stanley was 5 for 6 for 133 yards and three touchdowns in the first half, but he also fumbled. The ball was recovered and advanced for a touchdown by Gamecocks defensive end Jamison Wadley.
Stanley was 1 for 4 passing in the second half and took a sack when the Rebels were driving. Masoli was 3 for 3 for 59 yards and led a field goal scoring drive in the first half, but his interception late in the third quarter set the Gamecocks on a 59-yard touchdown drive to make it 31-20 early in the fourth quarter.
Nutt said Masoli’s experience and his ability to make the option game part of the plan made him an easy choice to run the offense in overtime.
He offered no clarity on how the quarterback picture might take shape moving forward this week against Tulane.
Nutt said he warned his players during the week to guard against distractions in light of Masoli’s struggle with the NCAA and the absence of team captain Kentrell Lockett, who went through a series of heart tests before being pronounced fit on Friday.
“We tried to hit that hard with them in the Thursday meeting,” he said. “We knew going in it was going to be tough, but we can’t make excuses.”
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal