CONWAY — Michael Church came to Coastal Carolina as an unheralded walk-on quarterback and admitted earlier this week that even he wasn’t sure he’d ever get a chance to start for the Chanticleers.
But on Saturday night, Church looked like a seasoned veteran as he seamlessly filled in for injured starter Alex Ross while guiding the No. 3/6-ranked Chanticleers to yet another lopsided victory.
Coastal used all three of its backup quarterbacks in its 66-27 win over VMI at Brooks Stadium – and all three performed well – but it was Church who got the offense going, and he proved himself more than capable of handling the job as the Chants improved to 8-0 overall and 3-0 in the Big South.
“I just continued the same thing I always do – just keep working hard, staying in the film room and just trusting the teammates around me. And I got my shot,” Church said.
Coming into the night, the sophomore from Kannapolis, N.C., hadn’t attempted a collegiate pass and had minus-eight rushing yards as his only official stat. On Saturday, he completed his first seven passes, engineered touchdown drives on Coastal’s first two possessions and finished the night 12-of-15 passing for 164 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions with all but 12 of those yards coming in the first half.
Grad student Brian Kass rushed for 49 yards with a nice 24-yard touchdown scamper while taking his turn at quarterback, and redshirt-freshman Dalton Demos completed 3-of-4 passes for 36 yards and a score while also rushing for 36 yards as the Chants fared just fine without Ross, who sat out to rest injuries to his foot and non-throwing hand.
“I think the offense did a phenomenal job. I think the offensive staff did a phenomenal job,” Chants coach Joe Moglia said. “You lose your quarterback, you have to prepare three guys – all with different packages. ... The offense did a great job period. End of story.”
Added Church: “We have depth at quarterback. It wasn’t just me. Dalton played a heck of a game, Brian, he stepped up in a lot of ways. So we have depth at quarterback and we proved a lot tonight.”
Senior running back Lorenzo Taliaferro added 126 rushing yards and a touchdown in 15 carries to break Coastal’s nine-year-old single-season record for rushing yards (now 1,112).
And the Coastal defense, after a disappointing first half, allowed only 127 yards and three points after halftime.
The Chants faced some pressure from the Keydets (1-7, 0-3) in the first half, though.
Making his first collegiate start, Church opened the game by leading Coastal on an 11-play, 78-yard scoring drive. He completed all four of his passes on the drive while putting the Chants in the end zone on a 17-yard touchdown strike to senior Niccolo Mastromatteo as he cut across the middle of the field.
After VMI answered with a 14-play touchdown drive of its own, Church moved Coastal down the field again, completing three more passes to get the Chants to the 11. Demos then came in to take the snap, faking a quarterback keeper, but Taliaferro took it 11 yards into the end zone.
The problem for Coastal was that the defense couldn’t get off the field. VMI scored on four of its five first-half possessions, including a 28-yard touchdown pass from A.J. Augustine to Samuel Patterson with seven seconds left in the first half. That came after the Keydets picked up 21 yards on third-and-14 as Augustine took advantage of ample protection to find running back Derrick Ziglar wide open.
Despite the offense’s production, Coastal had a slim 30-24 lead at halftime.
But the Chants’ defense looked renewed after halftime.
Sophomore safety Richie Sampson ended VMI’s opening drive of the second half by intercepting Augustine. A personal foul penalty on VMI set Coastal up at the visitors’ 19-yard line and they scored two plays later on Church’s 12-yard touchdown pass to senior Matt Hazel.
“That’s kind of been the trend all season,” Sampson said. “We’ve kind of been starting slow and then come back in the second half. We just made some good adjustments. We’ve got to fix that these next couple games, but the way we play in the second half is pretty good so far.”
The Chants came up with another big stop on the ensuing series as junior linebacker Quinn Backus stuffed Augustine for a loss of a yard on third-and-3, forcing a punt, and the next time, they held VMI to a 29-yard Dillon Christopher field goal.
Redshirt-freshman Devin Brown would return the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown – for the longest scoring play in program history – and by that point the Chants were cruising with a 45-27 lead.
Sophomore Roderick Holder delivered a big third-down sack to end another VMI drive, junior Brett Johnson stuffed Ziglar for a loss on a fourth-and-one play and senior Johnnie Houston later added an interception early in the fourth quarter as the defense held firm the rest of the way.
“At halftime, the defensive coaches don’t go over every play. They say there are the one or two things we really had some troubles with. This is what we need to be able to fix, and I think we usually wind up getting that square,” Moglia said. “... We don’t panic by any stretch of the imagination.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.