Nearly a year to the day from the time coach Bill Clark was hired as the new football coach at his alma mater, his Gamecocks were playing in the Quarterfinal round of the FCS playoffs. It was the deepest run Jacksonville State had ever made in the program’s division I history.
The incredible postseason run began on November 24, less than 24 hours after the Gamecocks defeated Southeast Missouri State to complete a 9-3 regular season.
JSU heard its name called on the ESPN selection show and was pitted against Samford University in a first round game that would reignite an old rivalry.
The Gamecocks beat Samford 55-14 for their first 10-win season since 1992, the season they went 12-1-1 and won the division II National Championship.
In its fourth try, JSU finally broke through for a playoff win after going 0-3 in the previous three attempts.
A week later, Jax State traveled to Lake Charles, LA for a second round battle against McNeese State. The Cowboys were 10-2 and ranked sixth in the country, but faced a determined JSU team that ran over them from the very first play, which happened to be a 19-yard touchdown pass from Eli Jenkins to Josh Barge. The Jax State defense stifled a Cowboy offense that was among the best in the FCS and recorded a school-record 11 sacks as the Gamecocks won 31-10.
And then there were eight.
Only eight schools in the entire country remained in the FCS playoffs and JSU was one of them. The Gamecocks earned a trip out west to face the third ranked Eagles of Eastern Washington on the red turf of Roos Field.
The Eagles were no stranger to deep postseason runs, having won the 2010 national championship. And they were well prepared for big opponents after knocking off a nationally ranked Oregon State team in the opening week of the season.
Defensive seniors Harris Gaston and Robert Gray each forced first half turnovers inside the Eagles’ end zone that slowed the high-powered EWU offense led by All-Americans receiver Cooper Kupp and quarterback Vernon Adams.
The Gamecocks got on the board in the first quarter on a trick play that ended with a wide open Gavin Ellis hauling in a short three yard touchdown pass from receiver Telvin Brown.
Early in the second quarter, Anthony Johnson caught a ten-yard touchdown pass from Jenkins that put JSU up 14-7. JSU’s record-setting
running back DaMarcus James added to his record number rushing TDs with a one-yarder that gave JSU a 21-14 lead, but the Eagles fought back to tie it at 21-21 just before halftime.
The second half was not the same after James and Jenkins went down with game-ending injuries. Troymaine Pope stepped up for the majority carries as Max Shortell came in at quarterback.
Griffin Thomas kicked his final field goal of his school record-setting season that made it 24-28 in the third. Late in the fourth, the Gamecocks were driving into Eagle territory when EWU’s Albert Havili stepped in front of Shortell’s pass to the left and returned the play for a 77-yard pick-six which ultimately yielded the final score 35-24.
Jax State finished its best division I season with an 11-4 record and was voted 10th in the final season-ending poll.
Coach Clark and the team will be recognized at halftime of the men’s basketball game tonight at Pete Mathews Coliseum.