Ten years did nothing to cool off the rivalry between Jacksonville State and North Alabama. The once fierce Gulf South rivals played another instant classic Saturday night at JSU’s Burgess-Snow Field in front of a packed house of over 20,000.
The 45th meeting between the two schools, the first since 2003, needed extra time to decide a winner and finally finished in about as dramatic fashion as possible. A 20 yard chip shot field goal by JSU’s Griffin Thomas would become the game winner as a UNA field goal attempt sailed wide right to avoid the game from entering another session.
After UNA won the opening toss and deferred, JSU fielded the opening kick and was flagged for a holding call. This would become a staple of the night as the Gamecocks were penalized 17 times for 159 yards on the night setting a new division 1 school record. Although the Lions drew 13 flags themselves which led some to believe the problem wasn’t with anyone in purple or red.
Opening game starter Eli Jenkins got the start for the Gamecocks as Max Shortell continued to rest a sore muscle he’d been working on through the week. JSU’s first possession was a three-and-out, but following a punt, JSU got the ball back quickly when Robert Gray striped UNA and recovered a fumble.
On the very next play Jax State pulled some trickery as running back Troymaine Pope rolling right, dropped back and launched a deep pass to Markis Merrill who made the reception behind the defense and ran it in for a 53-yard touchdown. A few drives later kicker Griffin Thomas would nail a career long 50-yard field goal to give the Gamecocks a 10-0 lead.
The first play of the second quarter resulted in a safety for the Lions as Jenkins, deep in his own territory, dropped back too far and was sacked in the end zone.
The Gamecocks’ offense sputtered some in the second after running back DaMarcus James left with an ankle issue and Merrill was helped off the field following a vicious hit that sent him to the ground head over heels. The theme of the night would begin as Thomas notched his second field goal of the night from 42-yards out sending the game to halftime with JSU on top 13-2.
After a UNA added a field goal in the closing minutes of the third, the fourth opened with the Lions driving again into JSU territory. At the 11:04 mark, UNA QB Luke Wingo ran in for a one-yard sneak to make it 11-13 as the Lions setup for a two-point try. The try failed on an incompletion.
The Gamecock offense couldn’t move the chains but a great punt by Hamish MacInnes backed the Lions up to their own one. The following play was a bad snap past the QB resulting in a safety for JSU, now leading 15-11. Thomas would add his third FG and the Gamecocks would give the ball back to the Lions as time began to tick away, but the Lions drove the field and scored with 13 seconds remaining. UNA could have attempted to go for two and try to win, but settled on a PAT and sent the game to overtime.
In the opening OT each team swapped field goals, and a few plays into the second JSU was facing a fourth-and-short. Coach Clark asked for a measurement but was denied, rather than risk a turnover he settled on another Thomas field goal to go up 24-21. The Gamecock defense held strong on the following possession and forced a UNA attempt that missed wide right, ballgame.
Thomas set a school record with five made field goals on six attempts in a single game. He was honored by the OVC and named national special teams Player of the Week.
Jenkins was 13/18 passing and Kyle West came in to go 4/8 for 41 yards. Pope finished with just 65 rushing yards after getting banged up himself, and Rashad Smith and Brandon Bender led the defense.
The Gamecocks are 3-0 and face Sun Belt foe Georgia State this weekend in the Georgia Dome, JSU is 2-0 against GSU all time with an overtime win in the dome in 2010.
Coach Clark said he felt thankful to get out of the game with a win after a tough fought game. He was clearly frustrated with the offensive output after a record setting performance the week before, but knows injuries played a part in that and said later this week that everyone seems to be on the right track and could be ready for GSU.