DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Junior safety Johnnie Houston said Coastal Carolina’s FCS playoff clash with Bethune-Cookman on Saturday was a statement game for the Chanticleers’ defense.
And he made sure he was heard loud and clear.
Houston had perhaps his best game of the season with a 68-yard interception return for touchdown, two forced fumbles, a half sack and a sure-handed recovery on a late Bethune-Cookman onside kick attempt.
His efforts highlighted what was indeed an impressive showing from the defense as Coastal held the host Wildcats scoreless until midway through the fourth quarter on the way to a 24-14 win at Municipal Stadium.
“It’s going to always be a moment that I’ll remember,” Houston said afterward. “It’s going to always be a game that I’ll remember because it’s our first [playoff] win in team history. But I’m going to put this as a team thing. It’s never an individual effort. It’s always a team effort.”
His forced fumble in the second quarter when he knocked the ball loose from junior tight end Jordan Murphy after a negligible gain set up the Chants for an eventual field goal as they took a 17-0 lead into halftime.
“It was kind of a blown assignment for me, but I seen the tight end go down and come out so I was already zoned in on him before the quarterback threw the ball,” Houston said.
His interception return for touchdown early in the fourth quarter -- the second-longest in program history -- capped the scoring and gave the team some breathing room and a 24-0 lead at the time.
“I knew that I had to return it for a touchdown to give us some kind of cushion, some kind of relief towards our offense because there was a couple times we were moving the ball and we didn’t quite finish our drives,” he said. “I just wanted to get in the end zone and have a little cushion for our offense.”
For the season, the second-year starter has 47 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a couple more highlights now.
“He had a great game,” CCU head coach Joe Moglia said. “Great game. Period.”
It’s been acknowledged many times that senior quarterback Aramis Hillary and junior receiver Matt Hazel, who are both from North Augusta, S.C., have a noticeable connection on the field. It’s manifested itself in several big moments this season, and their touchdown hook-up Saturday was another one for the highlight reel.
Hillary lofted a perfect fade pass over two defenders and into the back left corner of the end zone where Hazel leapt up to haul it in for a 3-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
And Hazel said afterward that he actually requested that play after reading the defense.
“I told coach on the sidelines to call that specific play,” Hazel said. “[Hillary] threw a great ball. ... It was just man to man across the board.”
The bad news Saturday was that the Chants had two players from already thin position groups left watching the end of the game from the sideline on crutches.
Redshirt-freshman tight end Thomas Pauciello had a nice 24-yard reception in the first half while filling in for injured senior starter David Duran (shoulder), but it was announced at halftime he wouldn’t return in the second half due to an injured ankle.
And junior right tackle Drew Herring limped off the field with an undisclosed injury in the third quarter.
Moglia did not offer much update on either player after the game.
“Don’t know yet,” he said. “Don’t know yet. We’ll have a better feel tomorrow and we’ll know for sure on Monday.”
Both injuries are potentially concerning for the Chants. Pauciello took over for Duran, who was wearing a sling in pre-game warm-ups and if neither player is able to go next week that leaves Coastal with untested redshirt-freshman Craig Weick as its top available tight end. He does not have a catch yet in his collegiate career.
More troublesome, though, is the situation along the offensive line.
Sophomore left tackle Chad Hamilton (knee) missed the game Saturday and junior left guard Jamey Cheatwood (knee) was already lost for the season to injury last month. Sophomore Will Middleton made the start at left tackle for the Chants against Bethune-Cookman, while sophomore Kenny Fitzgerald replaced Herring on the field.
“I couldn’t be prouder of those guys, the fact that we had so many guys down and so many guys kind of step up,” Moglia said. “We talk about two things. When you have one of your guys go down, that’s one of your better players. That’s why he’s playing, so we don’t make believe that we haven’t lost one of our better players. But the reality is it’s an opportunity for another guy to step up.”
Coastal’s next challenge is an Old Dominion team that leads all FCS teams in total offense at 538.27 yards per game and ranks second in scoring at 44.45 points per game.
The Monarchs (10-1) are led by sophomore quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who tops all FCS players in total offense at 412.27 yards per game. He’s passed for 4,158 yards, 35 touchdowns and 13 interceptions and rushed for 377 yards and eight scores.
The Chants’ six-game winning streak is the program’s longest since closing the regular season with eight in a row in 2006. ... Junior safety Tyler McCarthy led Coastal with 10 total tackles and added a pass break-up, while sophomore linebacker Quinn Backus had eight tackles to increase his program-record to 131 for the season. ... It was a big day for the Big South all-around as Stony Brook also won it’s first-round game Saturday, 20-10 over Villanova.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.