It didn’t take Richie Sampson long Saturday night to show the Coastal Carolina football team what it has been missing for the past season and a half.
With the CCU offense stalling and the defense trying to stave off a Lamar drive in CCU territory that could have put the Cardinals up by three scores early in the third quarter, Sampson changed the tenor of the game with a big play that Coastal desperately needed.
The safety stepped in front of a Carson Earp pass and returned the interception 71 yards for a touchdown, weaving through a few Lamar players and picking up a few blocks along the way.
The Chanticleers trailed 14-3 at the time, and the interception began a 35-point CCU second-half barrage in a 38-14 win in the 2016 season opener.
“That interception was huge,” Chants starting quarterback Josh Stilley said. “I think Richie’s pick kind of got the whole team going there. I think that was the spark that got us moving. After that we kind of couldn’t really be stopped as far as moving the ball down the field on offense.”
Sampson is a fifth-year senior and four-year starter who last played in a game on Oct. 11, 2014. He missed the last seven games of 2014 and all of 2015 following shoulder surgery.
“It’s been a really long time and a lot of people have helped me out to this point – my parents, trainers and coaches,” Sampson said. “I’m just really grateful to be able to play. … Anything I can do to help the team is really what I want to do.”
Sampson added 10 tackles, which tied a career high and was second to linebacker Alex Scearce’s 11 Saturday, including seven solo tackles.
His interception return is the second-longest pick-six in school history, behind only a 73-yard return by former linebacker Quinn Backus, and the third longest interception return overall.
“I just played my assignment and the quarterback really just threw it right to me,” Sampson said. “Once I had the ball in my hands, I played a little bit of running back in high school so it brought me back a little bit. I almost ran out of gas at the end but luckily I got some good blocks and got in the end zone.”
In a battle of two of the top running backs at the Football Championship Subdivision, both Coastal’s De’Angelo Henderson and Lamar’s Kade Harrington impressed.
Harrington gained 207 yards on 28 carries and scored on touchdown runs of 59 and 64 yards in the first half, taking handoffs through holes in the interior of the line and racing past defenders to the end zone.
Not to be outdone, Henderson gained 158 on 28 carries and scored two touchdowns in the second half to tie Virginia Tech running back Lee Suggs’ NCAA Division I record for touchdowns in 27 consecutive games.
Henderson said blocking schemes were adjusted at halftime, and the Chants were more prepared for Lamar’s coverages and blitzes in the second half.
“They had a new defensive coordinator so it was kind of a guessing game coming out of the gate,” Henderson said. “It took us awhile to adjust to it. [Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude] and the rest of the offensive staff did a great job of making adjustments and the score shows what we did.”
CCU gained 251 of its 407 total yards of offense in the second half, while limiting Lamar to 151 yards in the second half of its 391 total yards of offense.
“At halftime we realized we were just struggling in the red zone a lot,” Stilley said. “We finally started putting the ball in the end zone in the red zone like we planned on doing. At halftime we were still confident in our game plan. It really just came down to executing more in the red zone and not making those mistakes that cost us.”
Junior middle linebacker Shane Johnson left the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury and didn’t return. Laqavious Paul, a true freshman from Lake City, Fla., played the remainder of the game and CCU head coach Joe Moglia said he was out of position on both of Harrington’s two long TD runs.
So the Chants addressed those responsibilities at halftime and that was a key part of the halftime adjustments.
“We did a decent job defensively in the first half with the exception of those two big plays,” Moglia said. “… They didn’t get a chance to do that in the second half and we did a better job of moving the ball.”
In his first game as a starter, Stilley, a third-year sophomore, completed 10 of 22 passes for 138 yards and didn’t commit a turnover. He was 6 of 10 for 95 yards in the second half.
“In this game specifically I wanted to protect the ball, I didn’t want to have any turnovers,” Stilley said. “I didn’t want to give their team any momentum from my mistakes. I wanted to play a clean game and make a couple plays here and there. I think there are more big plays I can make than what I did tonight. I just want to see improvement from each week.”
Following Sampson’s interception return, which was capped by a two-point conversion, the CCU defense forced a three-and-out and Chris Jones returned a punt 31 yards to the Lamar 26.
Two plays later, Osharmar Abercrombie took a direct snap around the left side of the line for a 26-yard touchdown that gave the Chants an 18-14 lead.
Another Lamar punt without a first down gave CCU possession at its own 40, and an 11-play, 40-yard drive was capped by a 34-yard field goal by Ryan Granger.
Freshman Avery McCall of Dillon spelled Stilley for three plays in the drive, gaining 11 yards on two carries and handing off to Henderson for a 5-yard run.
Another quick hold by the defense and poor punt gave Coastal possession at the Lamar 40 late in the third quarter, and Henderson ran three consecutive plays, capped by his 9-yard touchdown run, during which he bounced off a couple defenders.
After Coastal’s 25-point third quarter, Granger added a 24-yard field goal with six minutes remaining to put the Chants up by 17 points.
Henderson was stopped on fourth-and-goal from the 1 prior to the field goal, and scored on a 1-yard run with 9 seconds remaining after Scearce’s second career interception with four minutes remaining all but secured the victory for the Chants.
Coastal has won its past six season-opening games.
“The first game there’s always going to be a couple mistakes, but I think we feel good about where we’re going now,” Stilley said. “If we can kind of polish up some of the things we did in this game and bring that into next week, I think it will end in our favor again.”
CC—FG Granger 40 Yd, 9:20.
LAM—Harrington 59 Run (Ball Kick), 0:00.
LAM—Harrington 64 Run (Ball Kick), 2:38.
CC—Sampson interception return (pass complete), 10:50.
CC—Abercrombie 26 Run (Granger Kick), 9:01.
CC—FG Granger 34 Yd, 3:35.
CC—Henderson 9 Run (Granger Kick), 1:20.
CC—FG Granger 24 Yd, 6:12.
CC—Henderson 2 Run (Granger Kick), 0:09.
Time of Possession
RUSHING—Coastal Carolina, Henderson 28-158, Abercrombie 16-82, Stilley 6-38, McCall 3-12. Lamar, Harrington 28-207, Earp 8-25, King 1-5, Randle 2-0.
PASSING—Coastal Carolina, Stilley 22-10-0-138. Lamar, Earp 27-13-0-154.
RECEIVING—Coastal Carolina, Mapp 3-46, Abercrombie 2-33, Black 1-32, Jones 2-22, Bradshaw 1-3, Tyler 1-2. Lamar, Daggs 4-47, Thompson 1-30, Jennings 2-26, Harrington 3-20, Giles 1-13, Randle 1-2.