Murray State's Walter Powell is a dual threat as a receiver and a return specialist, one of the best in the nation at both. Defensive success against the Racers' Hatch Attack depends on knowing where he is at all times. That won't be a problem for Hough. If the coverage calls for it Saturday, the Gamecocks' sophomore cornerback will be all in.
"I'm looking to go to his side the whole game, move side to side wherever he goes, if I could," Hough said. "It could be pretty tough, but that's what we like as corners -- competition. We like for somebody good to come in and give us some good work throughout the game."
They don't get much better than Powell. The senior from St. Louis is a consensus FCS preseason All-American and Walter Payton Award candidate. He caught nine passes in last year's season opener on a Florida State defensive back who was drafted by the NFL. He had six 100-yard receiving games a year ago and already has one this season.
Until he was shut out last week against Bowling Green, he had scored at least one touchdown in nine of the previous 10 games and each of the previous nine in which he had a reception.
"He's been a good player for us since we've been here," Murray State coach Chris Hatcher said. "He's just got an innate ability to break tackles. I tell him he runs like Racer 1 -- he runs like our horse (mascot). He kind of gallops. When he gets the ball in his hand, he turns into a different guy. He gets close to that goal line, he's determined to get in."
Sounds like the aerial version of JSU running back DaMarcus James.
Through four games, Powell has 21 catches for 257 yards and seven touchdowns that are second nationally only to Eastern Illinois’ Eric Lora’s nine. And he’s third in the conference in all-purpose yardage (127.8 a game).
But it has been an up-and-down season. Powell had 306 all-purpose yards in the Racers’ 41-38 victory over Missouri State two weeks ago – 11 catches for 155 yards and four touchdowns and a 98-yard kickoff return for another score -- but last week in a 48-7 loss at Bowling Green he had only three catches for 17 yards.
“He was open -- we just weren’t able to get the ball out there to him,” Hatcher said. “The second play of the game he was wide open on the hitch and we throw it in the dirt. A couple times we had him and didn’t go his way. That’s the hard part when you do what we do – getting the ball to the receiver.
“We’d like to get the ball to Walter about 20 times a game. … We just didn’t have the opportunity to get him the ball in space. We have to make sure we do a good job this week getting him the ball somehow someway, especially early in the game. It was just unfortunate he didn’t get as many touches (last week) as we’d like.”
Powell hasn’t really hurt the Gamecocks over the years. He didn’t catch a pass against them last year, but had 136 yards in kickoff returns. The year before, he had three catches for 62 yards and a touchdown.
But as long as he is on the field, he is a threat.
“He gets to full speed pretty quick and makes plays downfield, which is what scares you, and they’ve got a lot of ways to get it to him,” JSU coach Bill Clark said. “They don’t do as much trying to hide him. … It’s not like they throw to him every snap, but you look up and he’s got all these yards.
“And he’s a big guy after the catch, which makes him so dynamic in the return game. He’s scary. ... I played against Julio (Jones) twice in high school. This guy is that kind of guy who reminds you of a guy who can take over a game."
The Gamecocks got a taste of what is going to be like last week facing Georgia State’s Albert Wilson.
A receiver/return specialist in the same vein as Powell, Wilson had 280 all-purpose yards Saturday. He had seven catches for 158 yards, including a 75-yarder for a touchdown on the first play of the game, and 107 yards in returns, including a 60-yard kickoff return.
Hough was on the other side of the field when the opening play broke.
"I wish I would've gotten a chance to get over there," he said. "I always go to the away side and when I was over there I just knew I should've been over there."
Hough had plenty of chances to make an impact later. Late in the game, the Panthers were testing Hough and safety Brandon Bender on the boundary against Robert Davis.
"That was good, but I wanted them to come at me more from the beginning of the game," Hough said.
The comparison Hatcher made with Powell and the Racers' mascot brings up an interesting question. Would the coaches ever consider racing their receiver against the horse that laps the field whenever the Racers score a touchdown?
"No," Hatcher said with a chuckle. "He would be all for it. He's such a competitor, he'd do it just to see how he stacked up. We wouldn't do that.
"We may hurt the horse's feelings."
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577