Play-by-play: Lions outlast Vandals in an instant classic at the ‘Berry


Chase Gispert

Southeastern players celebrate on the sideline following #14 Zy Alexander’s fourth quarter pick six. (Nov. 26, 2022)

Southeastern came away with a 45-42 win over Idaho on Saturday night in Strawberry Stadium after the visitors’ last-play field goal attempt sailed wide left. 

Cephus Johnson III guided the Green and Gold to victory, going 18/28 for 208 yards passing while adding 69 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the ground.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Eli Sawyer was unable to play due to an injury he suffered last week during the River Bell Classic, which left signal-calling duties solely on the shoulders of the fifth year senior leader out of Mobile.

Fellow fifth-year senior, running back Jessie Britt, enjoyed his second career 100-yard rushing game on just 13 carries as he carved up the Vandal defense to the tune of 106 yards (8.2 yards per carry).

Backfield mate Carlos Washington Jr. scored two rushing touchdowns and was mainly utilized in short-yardage situations.

The bruising fifth-year senior transfer from New Hampshire totaled 14 carries on the ground for 41 yards and added 18 more through the air on three receptions. 

The game started out favorably for SLU, as Idaho fumbled on the first play from scrimmage. 

Vandal quarterback Gevani McCoy connected over the middle with star receiver Hayden Hatten who ran past midfield into Lion territory but was stripped from behind by true freshman defensive back Ian Goodly.

The Covington High product forced the fumble, which First Team All-Southland selection Jack Henderson recovered from Mandeville for some Northshore flavor. 

Southeastern couldn’t capitalize off the turnover and went three-and-out after going backward five yards. 

Idaho broke the deadlock with a nine-play 72-yard drive resulting in six points via fifth-year senior tailback Roshaun Johnson’s one-yard scoring plunge out of the wildcat formation. (Ricardo Chavez PAT good)

SLU answered with a methodical 13-play 75-yard march culminated by the Johnson in green’s two-yard sprint to the corner of the end zone to tie the game at seven. (Riley Callaghan PAT good)

The super senior went airborne as he cleared a Vandal defender and fell into the promised land.

Idaho’s ensuing possession bled into the second quarter and concluded with McCoy’s three-yard touchdown scramble on second and goal as the Big Sky side regained the lead, 14-7. (Chavez PAT good)

Lion graduate defensive end Tainano Gaulua was a half second too late closing the angle down as he collided with McCoy just inside the left pylon.

The Green and Gold would respond through a Riley Callaghan 39-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 14-10 after the 11-play 54-yard expedition stalled out at the Idaho 21. 

The Vandals connected with yet another haymaker, going on their third consecutive touchdown drive to take a 21-10 lead with 4:11 to go in the first half. 

This was the quickest score of them all, taking just six plays to cover 78 yards and finished off by freshman running back Anthony Woods’ five-yard scoring run. (Chavez PAT good)

Woods raced to the right corner of the end zone and hit the pylon with the football mid-dive just ahead of linebacker Anthony Britton Jr who was in pursuit. 

Facing a double-digit deficit with time running out in the second quarter, Southeastern found pay dirt with 29 seconds remaining before intermission. 

Carlos Washington Jr. took the direct snap and waltzed in for six. Offensive coordinator Greg Stevens threw in a wrinkle by deploying Hammond High’s own Tyrik Mitchell in the backfield to lead the way into the end zone.

The defensive tackle turned makeshift blocker combined with freshman tight end Connor Briggs to seal the edge for Washington, making it 21-17 at the half. (Callaghan PAT good)

SLU took advantage of receiving the second-half kickoff by reaching near midfield and then pinning Idaho at their own three-yard line. 

First-Team All-Southland punter Austin Dunlap flipped the field with his 53-yard boot to set up the Lion defense in a great position. 

After forcing a quick three and out, the Green and Gold set up shop at their own 39.

Later in the series, Johnson connected with his favorite target Gage Larvadain for a crucial first down to extend the drive on a fourth and three from the Vandal 24. 

The All-Southland performer hauled in the slant between two defenders to move the chains for one of his most important grabs in a Lion jersey. 

One play later, Stevens once again dove deep into the playbook, this time using trickery to fool Idaho with a halfback pass.

Jessie Britt took the toss sweep and got the safety to bite before throwing an over the shoulder dime to senior wideout Nick Kovacs to give Southeastern its first lead of the game, 24-21, (Callaghan PAT good) with 5:14 left in the third quarter.

In an effort to reclaim the lead, the Vandals orchestrated a drive down inside the red zone to the Lions’ 16. 

That’s when senior safety Donniel Ward-Magee read the eyes of the quarterback and intercepted McCoys’ pass in the end zone. Gaulua got pressure up the middle forcing the ill-advised throw into double coverage. 

Five plays and 80 yards later, SLU took command of the scoreboard 31-21 with 14:16 to play in the fourth quarter. 

Following three straight Jessie Britt runs of 37, 11 and seven yards, Cephus Johnson pulled the ball from Britt on a read option and ran through a would-be tackler before spinning off another en route to the end zone. (Callaghan PAT good)

The 25-yard touchdown scamper gave the Lions a double-digit lead and marked a 21-0 run since previously trailing 21-10. 

Southeastern’s 10-point advantage lasted mere seconds as dangerous return man Jermaine Jackson burst through the center of the SLU kickoff coverage 95 yards to the house, drawing Idaho within three, 31-28. (Chavez PAT good)

The Vandals’ defense forced a quick punt and gave the ball back to their offense. 

On fourth down and six from the Lions’ 34, McCoy found his main man Hatten on a go route for six to silence a stunned crowd at Strawberry Stadium. 

The FCS leader in receiving touchdowns brought in his 16th of the season as the big-bodied receiver used his 6’2 210 pound frame to beat First Team All-Southland cornerback Zy Alexander off the line of scrimmage, who was playing in press man coverage.

Idaho had retaken the lead 35-31 with 9:15 remaining in a back-and-forth affair that would get even wilder. 

In his last ever home game in a Lion’s uniform, Johnson coolly led his team down the field on a nine-play 75-yard touchdown drive as Southeastern regained the lead yet again, 38-35. (Callaghan PAT good)

Larvadain showed why he was a First-Team All-SLC selection at receiver by snagging his second fourth-down conversion of the game down to the Vandals’ one yard line. 

Johnson faked a QB draw on fourth and two from the Idaho 27 before firing a dart to the sophomore speedster who secured the catch setting up Carlos Washington’s one-yard touchdown run. 

Now it was McCoy’s turn to work some magic. Instead, the redshirt freshman threw a pick-six to none other than Zy Alexander as the roof came off the ‘Berry. 

The sophomore sensation, who was beaten on the previous series, jumped a curl route in the flat and darted down the Vandal’s sideline 46 yards for his second house call in as many weeks to score the ultimate redemption. 

“When I gave up the touchdown, I was down on myself, but I have teammates who lift me up and help me stay positive. They told me the very next drive that I was going to catch a pick…I saw the quarterback looking at the receiver the whole time so I was just waiting for him to throw it and the rest was history,” said Alexander.

The Lions were in command 45-35 (Callaghan PAT good) with 4:12 to play. 

Then, controversy struck, as McCoy was walloped by edge rusher Arlen Williams as he released the ball and was intercepted again by Alexander as the ball fluttered haplessly into the Hammond night. 

The seemingly game clinching turnover was wiped out by a roughing the passer penalty which was met with boos across Strawberry Stadium. 

Two plays later, McCoy fired a deep rainbow pass that landed in Jackson’s bread basket and the electric junior wideout from Oakland, Ca. did the rest resulting in a 70-yard touchdown (Chavez PAT good) to cut the Lions lead back down to three, 45-42. 

Idaho’s defense bowed up and forced a Southeastern punt whilst Head Coach Jason Eck burned all three of his timeouts to give McCoy and co. one more chance. 

Normally fleet footed punter Austin Dunlap shanked his kick for a mere 18 yards to give Idaho the ball at their own 42-yard line with 1:35 remaining. 

The Vandal’s offense got to the SLU 34 and were faced with a second and 10. 

Williams dropped McCoy at the 37 for a sack but grasped his facemask to set up Idaho at the Lion’s 22. 

After an incompletion, Chavez lined up for a game-tying 39-yard field goal in an attempt to send the game to overtime with 11 seconds on the clock. 

Southeastern Head Coach Frank Scelfo decided to use one of his remaining timeouts to ice the kicker, but it backfired as he gifted Chavez with a second opportunity after he missed initially. 

On the second try that counted for all the marbles, the junior out of Los Angeles, Calif. slipped on the turf as his kick sailed wide left. 

The Green and Gold escaped the 45-42 thriller victorious after both squads put up 21 points apiece in the final quarter of play. 

“The crowd was awesome. They had to be drunk out there to be that loud. They were excited and Hammond, America stepped up for us,” said Scelfo lightheartedly after the game, praising the home fans. 

SLU and their 2022 Southland Conference Coach of the Year move to 9-3 on the season and will ride a six-game winning streak into Birmingham, Ala. for their second round playoff matchup against sixth-seeded Samford.

The Bulldogs (10-1) went undefeated in FCS play and a perfect 8-0 as champions of the Southern Conference. 

Their only loss of the year was in week two to current No. 1 and reigning FBS national champion, Georgia, 33-0 in Athens.

Kickoff for Southeastern vs. Samford is set for 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3 at Seibert Stadium.

Tune in to ESPN+ to catch the Lions in action as they look to survive and advance.