University of Charleston football coach Pat Kirkland wasn’t thrilled with the way his Golden Eagles wrapped up their season-opening win against nationally ranked Fairmont State on Thursday at University of Charleston Stadium, but he’ll happily take the result just the same.
The Eagles got out to a 35-3 lead by halftime and got 367 yards on 19 of 27 passing from senior quarterback Brant Grisel before holding on to get a 42-39 win over the Falcons, who entered the contest ranked 25th in the nation in the Division II coaches poll.
“Our offense played amazingly, and our defense played really well in the first half,” Kirkland said shortly after Grisel connected with a standout wide receiver Mike Strachan for a 30-yard gain on 3rd and 10 from the UC 18 with 1:22 left that sealed the win.
“I’ll say this: [Our defense] played a really good offense. One that was in the top 20 a year ago in the country and they had just pretty much all their starters back,” Kirkland said. “We have nine of 11 new guys on defense. We played really well the first half and really bad the second half.
“I’m not sure it’s as much what we did in the second half as it was they elevated their game a little bit, but we got tired and wore down. I got to be able to play some more bodies on defense.”
UC took the opening kickoff and marched 86 yards to its first score of the night, capping the drive with a 7-yard pass from Grisel to Strachan.
Strachan led all receivers in the game with a career single-game-high nine catches for 157 yards and two scores, and it wasn’t long before UC was in the end zone again. And then again.
The Falcons’ unfocused first-half play, which included a pair of brazen play calls, keyed heavily in UC’s ability to take total control of the game before the half.
Down 7-0, Fairmont State faced a fourth-and-1 from its own 46. Khalik Hamlin took a handoff and appeared to be making his way off tackle to the right, but was swallowed up by UC redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Zafeer Muhammad and sophomore linebacker Elijah West for no gain.
Just eight plays later, Grisel connected with Tyreik McAllister for an 11-yard score that put the Eagles up 14-0 a little more than midway through the opening quarter.
FSU was flagged five times for 55 yards in the opening half, not including a pair of fouls that were offset by UC penalties, resulting in repeated downs on what had been Falcon gains.
Muhammad’s performance on the defensive front helped provide an immediate answer to how Kirkland and UC were going to adjust after losing a pair of defensive standouts to the NFL ranks after the 2018 season. John Cominsky is now with the Atlanta Falcons and Kahzin Daniels is on injured reserve with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Muhammad came up big again in the second quarter when he recovered a Hamlin fumble at the UC 18-yard line. It took UC just three plays before Grisel found Xzavion Gordon for an 83-yard touchdown catch and run with 13:26 left in the half to put the Eagles up 28-3.
“Zafeer Muhammad has been playing really good ball. Last year he was playing behind two guys that are in the NFL now,” Kirkland said. “For him to come out and just do what he did was awesome. He’s worked really hard for it, and those are the guys that we’re going to need to step up if we’re going to be consistent with this thing.”
UC outgained Fairmont State 371 yards to 229 in the first half, but convincing first-year starters to return to the field with a mindset of the game being scoreless proved a task easier said than done. The Falcons (0-1) scored the game’s final 29 points to bring the score as close it was.
The Golden Eagles finished with 542 total yards, with McAllister leading the rushing attack with 94 yards on 21 carries. Fairmont State finished with 580 total yards, with quarterback Takwan Crews-Naylor completing 27 of 42 passes for 369 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Hamlin led the Falcons on the ground with 132 yards on 20 carries.
Grisel’s 367 yards were a UC single-game record. The senior broke the previous record of 315 passing yards that was set by Jeremy Johnson in 2015 against West Virginia Wesleyan.