The OVC race became a little more interesting today. Eastern Kentucky traveled eight hours from Richmond, leaving their success against Tennessee State in the rear view mirror and hoping for another lopsided victory against a questionable Jacksonville State squad. Little did they know they were traveling to the heart of the OVC chaos theory.
Let’s take a moment to break this down: JSU, a team that defeated FBS Georgia State, nearly lost to D-II North Alabama. They proceeded to lose to a Murray State team who has since struggled. The Gamecocks suffered a blowout loss to Tennessee State who in turn was blown out by Eastern Kentucky. Many believed JSU was next on the EKU chopping block. This evening, Jacksonville State emphatically made their case for a playoff bid.
Out of the gate, Jacksonville State stuffed the run against a stout EKU offensive line. Defensive tackle Caleb Lawrence had arguably the game of his career even though the stats say otherwise. The heart of the JSU defense prevented EKU from running up the middle and forced them to run outside and throw. Coach Bill Clark mentioned earlier in the week that they had to stop the run to win, and the Gamecocks answered the call. Eastern Kentucky only gained 111 yards on the ground, a season low again FCS competition (107 vs. Louisville).
Jacksonville State’s offense centered on the run behind the legs of running backs DaMarcus James and Troymaine Pope. Quarterback Eli Jenkins also rotated into the game to put the rushing game over the edge. These three players scored a whopping seven touchdowns tonight with Jenkins leading the team with 120 yards rushing. The Gamecocks ran the buck sweep multiple times for big gains in addition to the zone read with Jenkins. Quarterback Max Shortell chimed in for 190 yards to give JSU a balanced offense that gave EKU fits all night. They scored touchdowns on an unbelievable 9 of 14 drives.
Eastern Kentucky made multiple mistakes early that lead to the blowout loss. The Colonels had two fumbles in the second quarter that led to JSU scores. With the running game averaging only two yards per carry, quarterback Jared McClain was forced to throw the ball, something EKU would rather use as a complement to their running game. McClain was inaccurate most of the night only four passes for 56 yards and an interception. By the fourth quarter, he was pulled for mop up duty. He made a few key completions that set up an EKU field goal in the first half, but he was not able to consistently hit his receivers and move the chains.
The Colonels were noticeably frustrated as they got on the buses outside Burgess-Snow Field. After three straight wins against the Gamecocks, their playoff hopes were shattered today. The Gamecocks looked like a different team. There was a fire and aggression in their eyes. Multiple Gamecocks made memorable hits that had the entire stadium on their feet. It appears Coach Clark and the Gamecocks are hitting their stride at the perfect moment. Next week’s trip to Charleston will be do-or-die time for JSU, facing the #2 team in the country. The next few weeks are going to be a wild ride for the top of the OVC.