BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. — The coaches would say afterward that senior quarterback Aramis Hillary could have played Saturday if necessary, but with the veteran missing practice all week recovering from a mild neck injury, the decision was made to at least see what redshirt-freshman Alex Ross could do leading the Coastal Carolina offense for a game.
And the rookie gave no reason whatsoever to second-guess that choice.
Making his first collegiate start, Ross not only led the Chanticleers to victory but also put himself in the program’s record book with a thoroughly impressive performance in Coastal’s 55-33 shootout win over Gardner-Webb at Spangler Stadium.
Ross completed 16 of 30 passes for 342 yards with three touchdowns and an interception and rushed 13 times for 62 yards while looking poised and decisive in a game where the offense had to carry much of the weight. His 404 total yards are the second-most all time by a Coastal player trailing only a 425-yard game by Tyler Thigpen, his passing total ranks as the fifth-highest in program history and the offense’s collective 596-yard effort was also the second-best total ever for the Chants.
“I’m really proud of Alex,” senior defensive end Quinton Davis said. “I’ve been waiting to see him actually get in and play. It was a good first start for him. He got in, got us a win and we’ve really got some confidence in this guy. He’s going to take this team to a national championship before he leaves.”
In the short term, the Chants just needed Ross to get them through Saturday.
With Hillary recovering from that neck injury and Coastal (5-4, 3-1 Big South) needing to win out to keep hopes alive of sneaking into the FCS playoffs, the Chants found themselves in a surprising offensive duel for much of the day with the Runnin’ Bulldogs (2-7, 1-3).
Gardner-Webb scored on its first two possessions to take an early 13-6 lead and kept the pressure on from there. After three quarters Coastal was clinging to a 34-33 lead when the defense finally found its footing.
On the final drive of that third quarter, the Chants delivered three sacks on Gardner-Webb sophomore quarterback Lucas Beatty – the Big South’s leading passer. Davis had two of those sacks, including one for a 15-yard loss on third down to force a punt. Coastal took over at midfield and scored 10 plays later on a 7-yard touchdown run by junior Lorenzo Taliaferro to push its lead to 41-33.
Then, on the ensuing Gardner-Webb possession, sophomore safety Pernell Williams intercepted Beatty to give Coastal the football at the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ 33. Five plays later, the Chants were in the end zone again on a 10-yard run by senior Marcus Whitener and the game was all but in hand. Junior cornerback LaDarius Hawthorne would pick off Beatty again on the next Bulldogs drive, and Whitener soon tacked on a 39-yard touchdown run up the middle to cap the scoring.
“We gave up some big plays, but that’s a part of football,” Williams said. “Bad things happen – it’s just all about how you come back and be ready the next half. We made a few adjustments, we came out the next half and we executed what we needed to execute.”
For most of those first three quarters, though, it was on the offense to keep Coastal in the game.
CCU offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said he knew by the middle of the week when Hillary wasn’t yet able to practice that Ross would at least start the game. Having Hillary available gave the team a safety net of sorts, but it wouldn’t be needed Saturday.
“The thing about him is he’s very cool – he doesn’t get rattled,” Patenaude said of Ross. “… I thought he handled himself really well. A lot of what we were doing was checking in and out of stuff, especially in protections. We knew that they would try to heat us up, and a lot of that stuff he was checking and calling routes. So I think his game management skills for his first start were excellent. We always know he can throw the football just from watching him in practice. But just the way he handled himself, his composure, he didn’t get rattled at all. It was tremendous.”
Ross made quick reads and wasn’t afraid to tuck the ball and run if nothing was open after a few seconds. And when he did have open receivers, while he wasn’t perfect, he was plenty good enough.
He gave Coastal’s its first lead, 13-12, late in the end of the first quarter with a pair of 22-yard completions to junior Niccolo Mastromatteo – including a well-thrown touchdown strike dropped over the defenders and into the front right corner of the end zone.
Ross’ lone costly mistake came on an interception midway through the second quarter that was thrown straight to junior linebacker Brian Wittenberger after Coastal had taken possession at the 50, but he came back the next drive with a 60-yard touchdown pass to junior DeMario Bennett, who caught the ball on the sideline and made a nice pivot move to shake his defender before taking off toward the end zone. That gave the Chants a 27-20 lead at the time.
Coastal added to that early in the third quarter on a 99-yard drive capped by an 81-yard touchdown hook-up with Mastromatteo, who took a short reception and juked the first defender to the ground before racing the rest of the way to the end zone for a 34-20 lead.
Ross had 329 passing yards by the end of the third quarter before letting the defense and ground game carry Coastal the rest of the way.
“Honestly, I expected what happened [after] practicing with him all year,” Mastromatteo said. “His job is to back up Aramis, and if Aramis goes down, he’s supposed to step in and do his job and he did. Just seeing him in practice, I know what he’s capable of. It’s not a surprise to me.”
Ross joined the program last year after quarterbacking Buford High School to two Georgia 2A state championships, but he had only thrown 17 passes in his short collegiate career before Saturday.
“We know Alex is a good football player, and he’s certainly gotten a lot of work this year as far as practice goes,” CCU coach Joe Moglia said. “He’s had a little bit of game experience – not that much – but I think to go in there under pressure the first time out as the starter when there’s a lot depending on him, he certainly stepped up and did a great job.”
Ross was vague as to when he was officially told he would get the start, but he reiterated that he had been preparing all week for the opportunity and was ready.
“I missed a few throws. I wish I could have had a few of them back and changed my reads up a little bit because I missed a few reads that could have changed the game a little bit differently,” he said. “But other than that, I felt great out there. Yeah, a little bit nervous at first, but after the first snap all the nerves were gone.”
It showed. Coastal’s 596 yards as a team Saturday trailed only a 638-yard performance against Gardner-Webb in 2006.
Mastromatteo finished with four catches for 151 yards and two touchdown, tying Jerome Simpson for the third-highest single-game receiving total in program history. Senior Jeremy Height rushed for 65 yards and a score in just nine carries and became Coastal’s single-season record holder for all-purpose yardage (now up to 1,225). Whitener led the team with 79 rushing yards and two scores – all in the fourth quarter. And sophomore linebacker Quinn Backus had a game-high 12 tackles for the Chants.
Senior Kenny Little led Gardner-Webb with 152 rushing yards and two touchdowns – including a 78-yarder in the first quarter – and Beatty finished 22-of-32 for 321 yards, two touchdowns and two picks as the Runnin’ Bulldogs piled up a season-high 547 yards of their own.
With three straight wins now, the Chants are holding on to their outside shot at the Big South regular-season championship, but they still need Liberty to win out and upset league-leading Stony Brook next week for that to be possible.
“We can’t really control what happens, whether we get in or not,” Mastromatteo said. “But we can control how we play each game and the more points we put up in the next three games the better.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.