CONWAY — Joe Moglia started his first postgame news conference as Coastal Carolina’s head football coach by speaking in a measured tone as if it were any other day, any other game. He mentioned the honor and responsibility he felt representing the Chanticleers on the sideline and that he knows when he watches film of the game that that team will have to make improvements.
And then he allowed for a little of the emotion to come out – just a little, though.
“But at the end of the day, it was our first win together, my first win as part of this university – and I’m excited, I’m jacked up, I’m elated,” he said, his voice rising just enough to punctuate his words.
The Moglia era at Coastal Carolina started with a 29-13 win over visiting North Carolina A&T on Saturday night before an announced capacity crowd of 9,314 at Brooks Stadium as the Chants gave their new head coach his first victory and their fan base a glimpse at the team’s potential.
“It really is an emotional thing for me and I feel that responsibility on my shoulders to deliver for this university,” Moglia would say later.
So far, so good. The Chants (1-0) weren’t flawless in their season opener, but they were plenty good enough while building a 14-0 first-quarter lead over the Aggies (0-1) and never letting the game get closer than seven points the rest of the way, all the while putting weight behind some of the optimism conveyed over the last month or so.
Junior receiver Niccolo Mastromatteo, who entered the night with one career reception but plenty of preseason hype, finished with a game-high seven catches for 114 yards – more yards than any Coastal receiver had in a game last fall.
Senior running back Jeremy Height, who rushed for just 197 yards last year but had earned his place atop the depth chart in the spring, delivered a breakout game as well with a career-high 109 yards and a touchdown in 20 carries.
Junior linebacker Mike McClure, who surprisingly earned a starting job over veteran standout Andrae Jacobs, justified his place in the lineup with a team-high 12 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss.
And then there was senior cornerback Dontavais Johnson, who after moving in and out of the starting lineup and up and down the depth chart that last couple years, recorded his first three interceptions and added a key end zone pass break-up while showing that the Chants’ secondary just might be OK without former standout Josh Norman after all.
For the first game at least, there was plenty to be encouraged by.
“Like coach said, there’s a lot more things we need to work on,” Mastromatteo said. “... All in all, I think it was just a good start. A good start to a long season.”
Coastal actually got off to an inauspicious start Saturday as senior quarterback Aramis Hillary ended the team’s first offensive possession with an interception while trying to force a third-down throw toward the sidelines.
But the offense got going soon enough.
After North Carolina A&T missed a 40-yard field goal try, the Chants answered with a nine-play, 77-yard march down the field as Mastromatteo turned a short catch into a 33-yard completion and Hillary later capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.
Johnson ended the Aggies’ ensuing possession with his first interception as freshman Kwashaun Quick – making his collegiate debut in place of suspended starter Lewis Kindle – tried to get rid of the ball while being pressured.
The Chants took over at their own 43 and found the end zone again as Height scored on an impressive 22-yard run, waiting for a hole to open and then plowing through the last of the would-be tacklers on his way across the goal line at the end of the first quarter.
“That’s what they brought in the new strength and conditioning coach for,” Height said of his run. “We all came in and got stronger, faster and better this year. So I thank him for that.”
Then it was more Johnson.
The cornerback, making his sixth career start, came up huge for Coastal early in the second quarter as Quick attempted a fade pass into the end zone on a third-and-goal play from the CCU 10. Johnson was all over intended receiver Donta Prince and knocked the pass away, forcing the Aggies to settle for a field goal. And on the visitor’s next drive, he notched his second interception with a diving catch on an overthrown pass by Quick. With another pick in the fourth quarter, he became the first Coastal player since Norman in 2009 to have three interceptions in one game.
“I was just doing my job,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’ve been doing all week. Coach [Clayton] Carlin, our defensive coordinator, said do your job and plays will come to you, and that’s what I did.”
North Carolina A&T scored on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Quick to Larry Raper in the final seconds of the first half to cut Coastal’s lead to 17-10, but the Chants took the opening drive of the third quarter 75 yards for another score of their own. Hillary threw a perfect 33-yard touchdown strike to Matt Hazel, hitting the junior in stride in the end zone as he had a step on his defender.
And from there, the Chants rolled.
Hillary finished with a career-high 274 yards on 19-of-28 passing, although he did throw two interceptions after having only five all of last year. He was quick to reiterate Moglia’s comments that the team left plenty of room for improvement, but they nonetheless won convincingly and gave their new head coach a satisfying debut after an offseason full of questions about how this new era of Coastal football is going to work out.
“It was huge,” Hillary said. “Coach Moglia has done a great job since he’s been here. He’s [done] as much as he could to make it not feel like much of a change. I think he’s done all we’ve asked of him, and I think a lot of the guys offensively, defensively and special teams, you know, those guys wanted to go out there and win for him. ... We love coach Moglia. He’s got a great motto, he’s a great guy and we’re going to keep fighting for him.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.