ORLANDO, FLORIDA | Coastal Carolina's perfect season came to an end late Saturday in a gut-wrenching 37-34 overtime loss to Liberty in the FBC Mortgage Cure Bowl.
Liberty's Brendan Schlittler blocked Massimo Biscardi's field goal attempt, which could have sent the game into double overtime. Instead, as the ball rolled on the turf, Liberty players and coaches stormed the field while Coastal players stood in stunned silence.
"It’s the first time all year long we’ve had this feeling and it’s not good," said Coastal Carolina head coach Jamey Chadwell, whose team finished the season with an 11-1 record.
It has been more a year since Coastal's last loss. On Nov. 23, 2019, the Chants fell 45-42 in a shootout with Louisiana-Monroe.
What made Saturday's defeat particularly tough was how Coastal had battled just to get to that point.
The Chanticleers struggled with the Flames for most of the game. For the first time all season, Coastal never led once. The closest they got was when they tied things up at 34 with just over three minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
Throughout the contest, it seemed as if the Chants' defense had no answer for Liberty quarterback Malik Willis.
“He was the difference in the game,” Chadwell said. “We couldn’t do anything with [Willis]. You see why he’s a five-star kid. He just hurt us a bunch defensively and we couldn’t get him off the field.”
Willis finished the game with 220 passing yards on 19-of-29 throws to go with 137 yards rushing and four touchdowns. He also tossed two interceptions.
The Chanticleers trailed 14-0 early in the opening quarter, and, despite a gutsy comeback effort, found themselves down by 12 with 13:22 left in the fourth quarter.
That's when redshirt freshman quarterback Grayson McCall stepped up. McCall utilized his top targets, wide receiver Jaivon Heiligh and tight end Isaiah Likely, to quickly march the Chants down into Liberty territory before McCall punched his way in from a yard out to cut the deficit to 31-26.
Heiligh finished with a Cure Bowl-record 178 receiving yards on 13 receptions. He came two yards shy of becoming just the second Chanticleer to have a 1,000-yard receiving season. Likely finished with five catches for 84 yards and a touchdown.
Liberty would get a field goal on the next drive to extend their lead to eight, but McCall and the Chants churned right back down the field. This time, McCall found tight end Greg Latushko in the back of the end zone to bring the Chants within two. A two-point conversion tied things up at 34 with 3:01 remaining in the game.
“[McCall] made some plays there that were just amazing,” Chadwell said. “Obviously we made some mistakes as well, but he kept fighting, he kept believing, and I thought he did a really good job of staying in there and taking some of the shots and trying to make some plays out of the pocket."
It looked as if Liberty was going to milk the clock and go for a chip shot field goal in the final seconds of the game, but Liberty running back Joshua Mack fumbled the ball at the goal line. The Chants recovered, giving Teal Nation hope for a possible 30-second miracle.
Instead, the team played it safe and forced overtime.
After the Flames booted in a 44-yard field goal, the Chants took the field and it looked as if they were going for the jugular. Coastal attempted three straight passing plays to start their drive. McCall's third-down throw left some fans looking for a pass interference flag — one that wasn't thrown. That play ultimately forced the Chants to attempt the field goal.
"There were a bunch of missed calls," Chadwell said.
The defeat ended a dream season for the Chanticleers in brutal, familiar fashion. In 2014, Coastal was 11-0 when the Chants lost to Liberty on a blocked field goal.
Despite the difficult conclusion, the season was historic for Coastal. The Chanticleers finished the regular season undefeated for the first time in program history. They were named Sun Belt co-champions. And they had four players selected for end-of-year honors in the Sun Belt Conference: Grayson McCall was named Sun Belt Freshman and Player of the Year; Tarron Jackson and D'Jordan Strong were named Defensive Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year, respectively.
Chadwell's summarized his postgame message to the team by saying that despite all their success, sometimes things just don't work.
"In life, sometimes you can try to do everything right, work hard and do all the things and make the sacrifices and you don't quite get what you want," Chadwell said.
He added that while Saturday night was "disappointing," the team can either wallow in the loss or push forward.
"We can mope about it, we can complain about it or we can use it as motivation moving forward," he said.
When it comes to moving forward, the Chanticleers will be seeing a lot of their starting players return to the field in 2021. Although the Chants will lose running back CJ Marable, who finished his career as the second all-time leading rusher in Coastal Carolina history, the Chants will return Reese White and Shemari Jones, who played pivotal roles in big games throughout 2020.
On the other side of the ball, much of the defense will be returning, including key players such as D'Jordan Strong, Alex Spillum, Jeffrey Gunter and Jerrod Clark. It's safe to say that this Chanticleer program shouldn't be a one-hit wonder.
"We will back," Chadwell said. "Coastal will be back."
His players agree.
"Now we know what it takes to get here," McCall said. "It's definitely going to motivate us. You guys will see us again."
The 11-1 season for the Chanticleers is the best season in program history in terms of win percentage (.917). The program has come a long way from their first season in FBS three years ago when the Chants went 3-9. Prior to 2020, Coastal had won 13 games in the last three seasons combined.
Senior linebacker Silas Kelly, who was a part of the initial transition to FBS in 2017, said that the season that CCU had in 2020 is what happens when players "buy in."
"It's been incredible to watch the change in this program and the growth," Kelly said. "This season has been incredible, the most fun I've ever had playing football."
The team took the opportunity to thank the fans who traveled to Orlando as well as those back in Conway for their support all season long.
"We appreciate it," Chadwell said. "We heard all the support. We saw all the teal down here and it was awesome."
Chadwell promised Teal Nation that more successful seasons are on the horizon.
"This is an opportunity for our team to learn from," he said. "And there's going to be a lot more bowl opportunities like this in the future."