CONWAY Coastal Carolina football coach Joe Moglia would say later that he was a bit overwhelmed by the moment Saturday night, and it showed as he slowly made his way into the Chanticleers’ jubilant locker room where the team’s players and assistant coaches had already begun the celebration.
As Moglia entered, somebody whistled for everyone to pipe down and gather around the Chants’ first-year head coach. The players took a knee in the front of the room, and Moglia addressed the team in a soft, even tone with the supporters, staff and media who were outside the entranceway leaning in to hear his thoughts on what had just happened -- the once-unlikely scenario the team had brought to reality.
“This is your legacy, guys,” Moglia told the players. “No matter what we do the rest of the season, no matter what happens -- whether we play five more games or we play one more game.”
There will be at least one more game, though -- the Chants made sure of that.
Coastal rolled to its fifth-straight lopsided win in a 41-20 rout of Charleston Southern on Saturday at Brooks Stadium and got the help it needed elsewhere to claim a share of the Big South Conference championship -- the program’s fifth in 10 seasons -- as well as the league’s automatic NCAA FCS playoff berth.
With the Chants (7-4, 5-1 Big South) winning and Liberty defeating VMI earlier in the day, they, the Flames and idle Stony Brook finished in a three-way tie atop the league standings, and Coastal claimed the tiebreaker of best road record in conference play to secure the Big South’s playoff entry and complete an impressive second-half-of-the-season push. With five straight wins -- each by 21 points or more -- and a little help from Liberty, which upset league-favorite Stony Brook last week to make this all possible, the Chants are back in the playoffs for the second time in three seasons and third time in program history.
They’ll learn their postseason matchup Sunday as the 20-team playoff bracket is unveiled during the live selection show at 1:30 p.m. on ESPNU.
“I couldn’t be happier or prouder of our school, of our players, of our coaching staff,” Moglia said in his post-game media session. “I couldn’t be more grateful to [CCU athletic director Hunter Yurachek] or [university president David DeCenzo] for giving me the opportunity to come here and represent Coastal. I’m a little overwhelmed now, and it probably hasn’t quite hit me yet.”
Yes, it’s been quite a journey for the Chants this season as a four-game losing streak and loss to Stony Brook last month in the conference opener made all this seem unlikely just five weeks ago.
Perhaps, though, that just made the moment even more special Saturday night.
“We’ve just got to enjoy this -- especially the seniors. It’s like a moment that you’ll remember forever. I know I will,” senior running back Marcus Whitener said. “Throughout the week, I had the mentality that it couldn’t be over because ... I just never embraced it being my last week of football. I was always thinking the whole time, we’re going to keep going. It’s not over.”
The Chants certainly did their part Saturday, building a 21-0 lead late in the second quarter before the Buccaneers (5-6, 3-3) scored their first points in the final seconds of the half.
Senior Aramis Hillary rushed for a career-high 115 yards while completing 12-of-22 passes for 102 yards, senior Jeremy Height rushed for 68 yards and a score and Whitener ran for 55 yards and two touchdowns as Coastal rumbled for 252 yards on the ground -- its sixth-straight game of at least 200 rushing yards.
It wasn’t Coastal’s most impressive offensive display, though, and certainly nothing like the high-scoring exhibitions of the last two weeks. Yet the outcome never really felt in doubt after the first quarter.
Sophomore linebacker Quinn Backus, who finished with a career-high 16 total tackles, intercepted Charleston Southern junior Malcolm Dixon on the third play of the game to give the Chants possession at the Buccaneers’ 43. They wouldn’t score, but that set a tone of sorts as all but two plays in the opening quarter started in CSU territory and the Coastal defense left its imprint on the game early.
After pinning Charleston Southern at its own 1 on the visitors’ next possession, the Chants would eventually take over at the CSU 37 and find the end zone six plays later on a 2-yard touchdown run by junior Lorenzo Taliaferro.
A defensive stand on fourth-and-one as junior safety Tyler McCarthy stopped senior Mike Davis for a five-yard loss then ended the Buccaneers’ ensuing drive and gave Coastal the ball at the CSU 39. Seven plays later, Hillary rushed in for a 4-yard touchdown to make it 14-0 in the opening quarter.
And after a Taliaferro fumble setup Charleston Southern at the Chants’ 27, the defense delivered with another big stop on fourth-and-two from the CCU 8 as the Buccaneers came up empty-handed again.
Height added a 2-yard touchdown run with 2:14 left in the half, and after the Buccaneers scored in the final moments of the second quarter, Coastal responded again quickly on the opening possession of the third with Whitener rushing in from 1-yard out to cap a 10-play drive that made it 29-7. The Chants cruised from there.
“It’s been an up-and-down season,” Hillary said. “We started high, and then kind of got low on ourselves. We lost four straight. We really could have gave up, but it was a great job by the coaches and the whole staff, everybody’s that affiliated with Coastal Carolina just to keep us pushing. And a great job by all the guys just rallying together. We could have gave up a long time ago, but something in us just kept us going and it’s paid off.”
The second-half surge into the playoffs makes for a memorable debut season for Moglia, whose hiring in December along with the dismissal of longtime coach David Bennett divided the fan base a bit. In his postgame comments to the media, Moglia made a point to address that in his own way.
“I was proud for the school. I really was,” he said of securing the playoff berth. “I felt great for the tough decisions guys like Hunter and Dr. DeCenzo made to bring me on. That took a lot of courage. That took a lot of guts, and I realize that because of my background it can be controversial. But it’s controversial for somebody who doesn’t do their homework, who doesn’t understand what the skill sets [are] that an individual might have. And I was proud of our guys. I know the school felt good today. I know our guys felt great today, [as well as] coaches who have worked really hard for so long. ... So I couldn’t have been happier.”
The team will reconvene Sunday afternoon inside Adkins Field House to learn who it plays next and where this wild ride goes from here.
“If we do what we do and we continue to play well like we’ve been playing, I think we can definitely make a run in the playoffs,” Hillary said. “I don’t know about the rest of the team, but I’m sure not going to practice for six days and go out there and expect to lose. I don’t know what opponent we’ve got, but next week we’re going to prepare as hard as we ever have and we’re going to hope to get a win next Saturday.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.