Garrett Sanders, Sports Correspondent
After a controversial hype video and an unexpected loss, the JSU Gamecocks Football team got off to a rough start. However, after a much-needed win over the Chattanooga Mocs, the Gamecocks had confidence going into Week three. However, it wouldn’t be an easy task to handle.
Coming into town was a top-five FCS team was the Eastern Washington Eagles. They too had a lot to play for as well. After an expected loss to the Washington Huskies in Week one, the Eagles dismantled Lindenwood.
This game was a must-win for both teams. The winner would have a chance to salvage their season. Meanwhile, the loser would have much ground to make up. For the caliber of these two teams, it was set up to be a dog fight to the very end.
The Eagles were a team that could point up points in a heartbeat. That sums up what happened from the opening kickoff. After a series of perfectly executed plays on offense and special teams, the Gamecocks were on their heels on defense. However, so was the Eagles defense.
The Gamecocks didn’t lose their rhythm from practice. JSU knew the Eagles had a weakness on defense. While the dink and dunk pass plays don’t usually work against elite secondaries, the Gamecocks knew they could use it to their advantage. That’s where the quick slant to the slot receiver came into play all game.
Eastern Washington had a game plan of their own though. That was to play up-tempo offense and pound the rock against the Gamecock defense. Then when the Gamecocks had to expect the run, the Eagles would execute a picture-perfect deep play-action pass to find their receivers open down the field.
For a while, there was no defense from the Gamecocks at all. However, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. A turnover on special teams from the Gamecocks would be crucial in the first quarter. With a superb field position to play with, the Gamecocks defense could not stop the Eagles offensive attack from getting in the end zone. Just like that, the Eagles were up 28-7.
While the Eagles were causing turnovers and getting three and outs in the first quarter, in the second quarter, the Gamecocks finally woke up and came to play. Senior Marlon Bridges stepped up in a big way for the Gamecock defense and took matters into his own hands.
The Eagles were driving the ball down the field to put this game out of reach. However, then, something happened. A pick-six! That made it a two-possession game. That’s when all the momentum shifted over to the Gamecocks side.
JSU’s defense got better as the game got on. However, there was one area the Gamecocks could not figure out how to stop. That was on their third-down defensive play. It seemed as if every time the Eagles were on third down, the Gamecocks would find some way to stay on the field. Despite everything, the Gamecocks still had a chance to make this game close and within reach.
Down by two touchdowns in half, Coach John Grass had to come up with ways to adjust to stop the Eagles on third down. Coach Grass knew what he had to do, which was to call defensive blitzes.
In the second half, the Eagles could still move the ball at will at some points in the game. However, when JSU’s defense needed to step up in a big way, they did. Third down was the charm for the Gamecocks defense in the second half.
While the defense continued to step up their game, the Gamecocks offense stepped up a notch as well. Wearing down the Eagles defense was the mojo for the Gamecocks in the fourth quarter. If there was an advantage the Gamecocks had that the Eagles didn’t, it was their conditioning. It was apparent the Eagles were tired.
Usually, teams don’t have this problem. However, for Eastern Washington, the heat was a significant factor for them in this game. JSU has the benefit of practicing in the August summer heat while Eastern Washington doesn’t have nearly the hot climate to deal with in their summer workouts. This difference would be a vital key to the game.
Another factor for the Gamecocks in this game was that Eastern Washington got too conservative in their play calling. The Eagles went away with what worked for them. Combine the poor play-calling with also the urgency the Gamecocks needed in the fourth quarter; it was a recipe for a comeback.
The Gamecocks used the conservative play-calling from the Eagles to their advantage. Sacks, a blocked punt, careless penalties, and a turnover helped the propel the Gamecocks to a chance to win the game.
Down by 17 points, fans at Burgess-Snow Field still were optimistic about a comeback. The crowd did a fantastic job being a home-field advantage for the Gamecocks. While Gamecock Nation did their part, it was up to the Gamecocks to do their part.
The offense stepped up and scored points, and the defense did their job by stopping the Eagles offensive attack. This effort ultimately led up to the Gamecocks scoring 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and taking the lead with 55 seconds left.
That’s when everything collapsed for the Eagles. The Gamecocks defense found a way to finish off the game with a turnover. That would ultimately end the game with a victory in JSU’s pocket.
When you talk about classic finishes in Jacksonville State Football history, this must go down as one of the better finishes in Gamecock history. Coach John Grass certainly got a signature win in this game. Hopefully, this will be just a glimpse of what is to come when it comes to the FCS Playoffs. Who knows? JSU might see Eastern Washington again!
This win gives the Gamecocks a 2-1 record heading into this Saturday’s game against in-state rival, North Alabama. North Alabama has a long history of being one of JSU’s biggest rivals, so you know this is going to be a fantastic game to watch.
Both football programs are at the peak of their prime. If you want to watch a hard-fought classic rivalry, this game is for you!
Photo courtesy of Matt Reynolds/JSU