LYNCHBURG, Va. — Joe Moglia has been consistently guarded with his emotions through one and a half seasons as Coastal Carolina’s head football coach.
He rarely gives the go-to sound bite. His responses, no matter the outcome, usually remain technical and restrained. And he will reiterate as many times as needed that no game is bigger than any other – a win is a win, a loss is a loss.
But not Saturday night.
Not after what he – and the remainder of the announced crowd of 18,911 inside Williams Stadium – witnessed as his Chanticleers delivered another compelling chapter of this storybook season they’re scripting.
Down 19 points in the third quarter against chief rival Liberty, the No. 4/6-ranked Chants rallied back to tie the game on a touchdown and two-point conversion in the final minute before blocking a field goal in the second overtime to pull out a 55-52 win.
As senior LaDarius Hawthorne swatted away John Lunsford’s final 40-yard field goal try for Liberty, the Chants erupted on the sideline and came racing onto the field in momentous celebration as they protected their perfect season while spoiling homecoming for the Flames all at once.,
Even Moglia had to indulge in this one.
“It’s probably the biggest single win I’ve ever been part of in 21 years of football,” he said, standing behind the end zone in the glow of the moment. “I think it’s got to be one of the greatest come-from-behind victories in all of college football of all time.”
That’s a debate for another time, but there’s no disputing how big this come-from-behind win is for the Chants.
Coastal (7-0, 2-0 Big South) is now through the meat of its FCS schedule, firmly in control of the conference championship race and with another strong statement to the rest of the country that these Chants believe they belong among the FCS’ best.
And that it happened in Williams Stadium – where Coastal was just 1-4 all-time and had lost by 45 and 36 points in its most recent visits – makes the story Saturday night all the more stirring.
“I think it shows we have a lot of faith,” sophomore quarterback Alex Ross said. “We’re not going to give up. We’re not going to quit. We’re going to be in every game ‘til the end.”
Things weren’t looking good early on for the Chants, though.
The Coastal defense had no answers for most of the day as Liberty (3-4, 0-1) scored touchdowns on four of its first five possessions while building a 28-16 halftime lead. The Flames then bumped that advantage to 35-16 with an 11-play, 77-yard touchdown drive to open the second half.
A noticeable number of fans had already left the stadium by early in the third quarter as the lead swelled, but as Ross recalls, he told his teammates to calm down and reiterated his belief that this game would not be decided until the very end.
After going down by those 19 points, the Chants pulled off a fake punt from their own 41 on the ensuing drive – on a 25-yard shovel pass from junior punter Austin Cain to sophomore Andre Johnson – and picked up another fourth-down conversion later in the drive as Ross connected on a 6-yard pass to senior Matt Hazel. Senior Lorenzo Taliaferro followed with runs of 17 and 5 yards for a touchdown to make it 35-23.
After trading touchdowns the next two series, Coastal finally got a quick stop on defense early in the fourth quarter and took over at its own 40. Ross’ 31-yard hook-up with senior DeMario Bennett on third-and-6 kept the Chants moving, and Taliaferro eventually plowed into the end zone again from 9 yards out for his third touchdown of the day to cut Liberty’s lead to 42-37 with 8:42 left to play.
And then the beleaguered Chants defense came up with one more stop, holding Liberty to a 22-yard Lunsford field goal after the Flames had first-and-goal from the CCU 9. That gave the hosts a 45-37 lead, and gave Coastal just enough time to finish off the comeback as the visitors took over at their own 25 with 4:13 on the clock.
“We work too hard and we push each other too much, we couldn’t let this one slip away from us,” Hawthorne said afterward of the Chants’ second-half mind-set. “... Because we know every guy that dressed out in Coastal gear Monday through Thursday practiced hard, we had a little bit more to give.”
Ross opened with an 11-yard completion to senior Niccolo Mastromatteo and then hit the veteran slot receiver again a few plays later for an 8-yard gain on fourth-and-4 from the Coastal 42. On the next play, Taliaferro took a pitch to the left for 20 yards, Ross followed with a 14-yard strike to sophomore tight end Thomas Pauciello and soon hit Pauciello again for a 15-yard touchdown pass with 45.3 seconds on the clock.
That made it 45-43; the Chants still needed the two-point conversion. During a timeout, Ross looked at redshirt-freshman receiver Bruce Mapp and told him to be ready.
“Alex told me before the play, if the defense was in man [coverage], he was going to come to me with a slant,” Mapp said. “... I just wanted to make a catch and make my teammates proud.”
Sure enough, Ross read the defense, settled on the matchup he wanted and fired a quick slant to Mapp, who secured the catch to tie the game at 45-45.
Liberty would get off a final Hail Mary pass before time ran out in regulation, but the Flames couldn’t keep this one from heading to overtime.
Both opposing running backs scored in the first overtime, Liberty’s Desmond Rice on the first play with a 25-yard touchdown run and Taliaferro with 7-yard score as the Chants tied it again.
And when Coastal settled for a 35-yard field goal from junior Alex Catron to open the second overtime, it again had to turn to its defense for help.
Sophomore defensive end Calvin Hollenhorst pulled down Rice for a loss of four yards on third-down screen pass, and Liberty set up for a 40-yard game-tying field goal try. Coastal was a man short on the other side, so the Chants called a quick timeout to make sure they were properly aligned for the attempt, and whether it made a difference or not, Hawthorne managed to get his hand on the ball to cap the evening.
“It’s just amazing,” Taliaferro said when it was all done. “... We knew since the end of last year we had a chance to do something special. With God, anything is possible. ... And with Ross.”
Ross no doubt affirmed his leadership standing in this one while keying the second-half comeback. After an erratic first half – with 124 yards passing, one touchdown and a costly interception – the sophomore quarterback settled in and finished 24-of-39 for 294 yards, three touchdowns and 79 rushing yards. Hazel helped that effort with nine catches for 147 yards and two touchdowns.
Taliaferro, as usual, did his part while rushing 26 times for 151 yards and four scores – tying a Coastal single-game record with those touchdowns and setting a new Chants’ single-season record with 17 so far this fall.
“Whenever you have a win like this, there’s no question everybody plays a part,” Moglia said. “The offense had a great game. I think the special teams had a great game. The defense struggled, but at the end of the day they wound up making plays when it mattered. And the bottom line is we never gave up.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318 or follow him on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.