Make the wrong call or hold off on making one at all and you risk facing the music from all comers if it backfires. Make the right move and you’re hailed as a genius, a riverboat gambler or on the fast track to the Hall of Fame.
Jacksonville State coach Bill Clark rolled the dice Saturday, and the Gamecocks came up a winner.
Clark chose to go for it on fourth-and-seven from UT-Martin’s 37 early in the fourth quarter of a tight road conference game and quarterback Max Shortell turned a collapsed play into a big gain. DaMarcus James capped the drive with the second of his three touchdowns to give the Gamecocks breathing room in an eventual 41-27 victory that spoiled the 22nd-ranked Skyhawks’ homecoming.
“We’re playing to win,” Clark said. “That’s what my tendency always is, and sometimes I have to pull myself back because I want to do that. Before I could say anything (about making the call), a bunch of our players were (buzzing around). I said, ‘Whoa, we’ll make the call – and we are going to get it.’
“That’s just who we want to be, but we’ve got to be smart. That was a big deal to us and our guys responded, too. When you put your faith in them and then they respond, that’s a big deal.”
A week ago, Clark played the safe card. He ran the regulation clock down to single digits before kicking a field goal to force overtime, where the Gamecocks (5-1, 1-1 OVC) lost on a 2-point conversion after scoring first.
Clark did it because he felt the Gamecocks had all the momentum. They kept the momentum with what they did Saturday.
The Gamecocks were leading 27-20 with 11:48 to play, but were in a tough spot on the field when the drive hit a crossroad. It was probably a little too far for kicker Griffin Thomas’ field goal range and a punt that could’ve gone into the end zone would have only made a 17-yard difference.
They initially lined up to go for it, called time and came back out lined up to go for it again. They intended a pass for Markis Merrill, but the sophomore got bumped off his route, eventually forcing Shortell to run.
He’s not the Gamecocks’ most mobile quarterback – he was sacked twice Saturday – but he found enough to get the Gamecocks what they needed – and a little more. He picked up 19 yards on the play.
“We had a good play drawn up, we knew we had them,” Shortell said. “The defensive back ran right into (Merrill), so that’s when I flushed out and got as much as I could.
“The game’s on the line. I thought I tried to find my other guy in the flats. I waited and waited and said I’ve got to go somewhere. I can’t sit in the pocket anymore. And then it opened wide open. I got a block from I can’t remember who, but I knew I had it after that.”
The Gamecocks were 2 for 2 on fourth-down conversions in the game and are now 7 for 11 on the season.
Workhorse James handled the final 18 yards of the drive on six straight carries, scoring easily on a direct snap from the 1 to push JSU’s lead to 34-20. He left no doubt about the Gamecocks going to an unprecedented fourth straight overtime game on their next possession, breaking off a 50-yard touchdown run.
James finished with 184 yards on 23 carries and three touchdowns. It was his second straight game of at least 180 yards rushing and his JSU-record third straight game with three touchdowns.
He opened the scoring with an 8-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, the first points the Skyhawks (3-2, 1-1) had given up to an FCS opponent in the first half this season. The Gamecocks led 24-10 at the half.
Until Shortell’s fourth-down conversion, the gutsiest call by the Gamecocks in the game was the flea-flicker Shortell turned into a 36-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Spencer Goffigan in the second quarter.
JSU offensive coordinator John Grass said it had been a long time since he called the flea-flicker. Goffigan said the Gamecocks worked on it every day in practice this week and he visualized the play working all week. He focused in on the bus ride in from Jackson, some 60 miles away.
The Skyhawks seemed perfect to pull it against. Safety Thad Williams liked to play up in the box to support the run and if somebody could get behind the defense the play was there for the taking. That somebody was Goffigan, who took it for his first career touchdown.
“It was wide open,” Goffigan said. “We knew it was going in Monday, it was going to be in the game plan, we just never knew when it was going to hit.”
It was there, but Shortell still had to deliver it.
“The hardest throws to make are against air, against no defense or the wide open guys,” Shortell said. “You just throw it out there and make sure you get him the ball.”
Shortell got the ball to a lot of receivers, especially early in the game. He completed 14 of 25 for 226 yards and two touchdowns. The first play of the game he hit Merritt for 46 yards. He also had completions of 35, 42 and 36 yards before halftime.
Merrill caught seven balls for 67 yards and Josh Barge caught five of 114 yards.
“We just knew we had to throw the ball deep on them early,” Shortell said. “We took our shots early to loosen them up for our run game and we connected on most of our deep balls. It was nice because we came out and put points on the board right away, which was something we struggled to do.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.