After last week’s win against Southeast Missouri, #20 Jacksonville State awaited anxiously on Sunday morning to see if they would get a shot at the national championship. Midway through ESPNU’s Selection Sunday show, the Gamecocks were informed they would face a familiar foe: in-state and former OVC rival #18 Samford.
While the Iron Bowl is the big ticket on Saturday in the state of Alabama, Head Coach Bill Clark has declared this game “their own Iron Bowl”. Samford is Jacksonville State’s oldest rival, although they are a secondary rival to Troy among JSU fans. Since the series’ inception in 1904, the Gamecocks hold a one game lead (22 wins, 21 losses, and 2 ties) against the Bulldogs but JSU has won the last eight meetings.
Samford finished their regular season schedule with a one point win against Elon and a share of the Southern Conference crown with an 8-4 record. This is the Bulldog’s first conference title in the SoCon and the first under head coach Pat Sullivan. The Bulldogs played a tough schedule with big wins against FBS Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Wofford, and Chattanooga. Early in the season, Samford lost by three to Southland champion Southeastern Louisiana. With the SoCon considered one of the better conferences in FCS football, Samford will be a tough test for the Gamecocks, and they would not have been Clark’s “first choice” when selecting an opponent due to the strength of this Bulldog team.
Breaking Down Samford
The best way to compare the rivals is to look at their common opponent, Georgia State. Both teams won the game, JSU by a margin of 6 in overtime and Samford by 10. Both games were played early in the season. The Gamecocks and the Bulldogs pulled away from Georgia State in the second half and had to prevent furious comebacks to win the game. Samford did a much better job defending the run while the Gamecocks kept the passing game in check. Overall, Jacksonville State held Georgia State to only 400 yards while Samford allowed 463. On offense, the Gamecocks moved the ball for almost double the yardage of Samford.
On offense, the Bulldogs run a Gus Malzahn type offense with a solid running game behind strong offensive line. Running back Fabian Truss is the best in FCS football for all purpose yardage with 200 yards per game. He will be the x-factor of the offense and is used similar to Darren Sproles of the New Orleans Saints. Do not let Truss fool you; Sullivan’s offense revolves around the passing game. Redshirt senior quarterback Andy Summerlin is not a real running threat, but he is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Summerlin was named the SoCon Offensive Player of the Year this week. The passing game is the real spark for the offense, averaging over 300 yards per game. Summerlin’s primary target is wide receiver Kelsey Pope, the brother of Jax State linebacker Kyle Pope. Pope has 67 catches this year with 783 yards. Interceptions have been an issue with Bulldog QB’s throwing 13 this year. Samford has a -3 turnover margin.
On defense, the Bulldogs are led by senior linebacker Justin Shade. The SoCon Defensive Player of the Year has 120 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, and 9 sacks. Shade leads the SoCon in each of those categories. Samford also features three solid pass defenders in Tae Lewis, Trey Wesley, and Jaquiski Tartt.
The Samford special teams unit is one of the best in the SoCon. Running back and return specialist Fabian Truss leads the conference in kick return average. Placekicker Warren Handrahan is among the best in the country with 19 field goals and a 79% field goal percentage.
Jacksonville State has done well defending against the pass this year and held EIU to only 182 yards in the air. The key will be for the Gamecocks to stop the running game and Truss. With Truss being used all over the field, Clark will need to keep a linebacker or nickelback on Truss at all times. If Truss runs wild, it will be a long day for the Gamecocks. In JSU’s three losses, they have allowed an average of over 300 rushing yards per game. In addition, the Gamecocks’ turnover margin in those three losses was -9.
Based on the numbers, everything points towards a close game. With the weather looking icy for Saturday’s matchup, the running game and ball security will be the important factors in a win for either team. With quarterback Eli Jenkins at quarterback, the Gamecocks have an advantage in the running game. The Gamecocks also the advantage in turnover margin at +2 for the year. On the other hand, Samford has an explosive passing game and veteran leadership at quarterback. Fans should expect an instant classic and arguably the biggest game in the rivalry’s century-old history.
Saturday marks the second time Jacksonville State has hosted a playoff game this decade (2010), but the Gamecocks are winless in the FCS playoffs. The game kicks off at 7 PM CDT and will air on ESPN3. No one can argue Coach Clark has had a successful first year in Jacksonville, but is this team ready for a playoff run? Can the Gamecocks stop the high-powered Samford offense to make it to the second round? Let us know in the comments section below.