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A Look Inside the Jacksonville State Hail Mary That Stunned Florida State, College Football

The Gamecocks won 20–17 at Doak Campbell Stadium after receiver Damond Philyaw-Johnson caught a 59-yard touchdown pass as time expired.

Miss KeKe was in tears.

But of course she was in tears. Keyetta Philyaw, known affectionately by that nickname, had just witnessed what seemed like a miracle.

Her oldest son, Damond Philyaw-Johnson, had caught a 59-yard touchdown pass as time expired to lift Jacksonville State to a stunning 20–17 victory at Florida State. After the play, her son disappeared, buried beneath a dogpile of teammates in the end zone, all of them leaping over each other to celebrate this college football season’s most electric ending yet.

He finally emerged, caught his breath and raced to his mother in the stands.

“I grabbed her hand and I told her I loved her,” Miss KeKe’s son said. “She had tears in her eyes.”

In five years, Keyetta Philyaw was never able to watch her son play a college football game—until this night.

Miss KeKe, a hotel housekeeper who cares for two younger children, never had the financial resources to trek the 27-hour roundtrip from the family’s home in Pensacola, Fla., to Duke, where her son played receiver his first four years.

But there she sat, in Doak Campbell Stadium with Damond’s two younger siblings and his girlfriend, embracing one another as the unthinkable happened.

This was all like a dream—a nightmare for Florida State, an FBS program with ACC championship and national title banners, and jubilance for Jacksonville State, an FCS program located in north Alabama.

The Seminoles, 28-point favorites, led 17–7 with roughly 10 minutes left in the game and had JSU backed up on its own 3-yard line. The Gamecocks marched 97 yards for a touchdown, got a big defensive stop and then moved to the FSU 41-yard line with 15 seconds left in the game. Three straight incompletions later and they were met with a dire scenario: 59 yards from the goal line with six seconds left.

Tyler Allen, a 25-year-old graduate assistant-turned-QB coach, called the play: Trips F Bullet Virginia. From the sideline, Allen signaled to his quarterback to throw the ball to the Z receiver.

“Zeeeee! Zeeeee,” he screamed while using his finger to spell the letter in the air.

His quarterback, Zerrick Cooper, saw it, took the shotgun snap and sent flying a perfectly placed spiral into the hands of the team’s fastest wideout. Philyaw-Johnson, the Z receiver, blew past cornerback Jarvis Brownlee, caught the pass around the 15-yard line, evaded defensive back Sidney Williams at the 10 and coasted into the end zone.

“It was unbelievable,” said Cooper.

Philyaw-Johnson isn’t your normal FCS player. And Cooper isn’t your normal FCS QB. They both transferred from Power 5 programs. Coop, as they call him, was once a backup at Clemson. Damond was one of the country’s best return specialists in his time at Duke. He even shares an NCAA single-game record: He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against Wake Forest in 2019.

“He’s long and fast,” said Allen, previously a GA at West Virginia and Troy under Neal Brown. “We try to get him the ball.”

He’s smart too, having graduated from Duke with a degree in sociology and a minor in education. He’s a criminal justice major in grad school at JSU and will soon work at a prison as part of his fall coursework, though he doesn’t know what prison or his role just yet.

“That’s up to the chief,” he quipped.

But back to football.

The play, Trips F Bullet Virginia, will forever be ingrained in Jacksonville State lore, a historic moment for the 7,700-student school located a 90-minute drive west of Atlanta. The play worked out of a formation featuring three receivers on one side and one to the other, with a running back in motion. The receivers ran vertical routes.

In the most fitting twist, the play had failed so many times before.

Allen called the play three times in JSU’s final four snaps. The first two? Incompletions.

“Third time’s a charm,” said head coach John Grass, an easy-going former high school coach who’s built an FCS powerhouse since taking over in 2014. “We felt like Damond could beat him. It was inside release and he got open. He got open the play before that too. Come back with the same play and made a great throw and catch.”

While Jacksonville State kept calling the same play, Florida State kept playing the same defense: man-to-man coverage with two safeties who were not playing particularly deep. Even on the very last snap, with six seconds left in the game, FSU elected not to play a prevent, deeper coverage because the Gamecocks had one timeout and needed a field goal to tie.

Still, in interviews with Sports Illustrated late Saturday night, JSU coaches expected more of a prevent defense.

“I’m surprised they didn’t get the safety over the top,” Allen said. “They kept playing the same coverage, so we kept calling that play.”

Finally, it worked. And get this: it was Damond Philyaw-Johnson’s only catch of the game.

“It’s surreal,” said Philyaw-Johnson, giving an interview while still celebrating with teammates on the field. “They were trying to get me the ball throughout the game and it wasn’t working, but we connected. Someone had to make a play. One of us had to make a play.”

Jacksonville State receiver Damond Philyaw-Johnson is at the bottom of a celebratory dogpile.

Jacksonville State has been known to give the big boys trouble. In fact, last season, they held a first-half lead against this very Florida State team before losing. In 2015, they took Auburn to overtime. In the FCS, the Gamecocks stormed to the national title game in 2015, have participated in 14 playoff games since 2013 and won six OVC titles in the last seven seasons.

Yet still, the world often mistakes Jacksonville State for other schools, says Greg Seitz, the athletic director at JSU. The school occasionally receives mail addressed to Deion Sanders, the new head football coach at Jackson State, the SWAC program in Jackson, Miss. And many believe that the university is located in Florida.

“So,” they’ll ask Seitz, “how far are you from the beach?” (Jacksonville State, located in Jacksonville, Ala., is about 300 miles from the beaches of the Florida panhandle.)

In one of the wildest confusions, Seitz once received a six-figure game check in the mail from an FBS program that intended to send the check to Jackson State. And no, he didn’t cash it.

What he will cash: The $400,000 guaranteed check the Noles paid JSU to come to their place—and win.

It is a huge chunk for a Jacksonville State program with a budget of $18 million. Florida State’s budget? Roughly $150 million. The Noles also get about 20 more scholarship players.

“It’s a terrific feeling,” says Grass, whose squad is the third FCS program this year to beat a Power 5 team. “FCS schools are winning some games this year against FBS. FCS teams are mismatched. Just scholarship numbers But every game has a life of its own. You gotta play the game.”

For a mom and her son, Saturday was extra special.

Miss KeKe cried, Damond caught and Jacksonville State won.

“It’s insane,” says Allen. “It’s insane.”

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