In a game the Gamecocks needed to keep any postseason hopes alive, they returned home for the first time in a month Saturday and crushed Eastern Kentucky 68-10, presumably knocking the Colonels out of the playoff picture.
“I think it puts us in it,” JSU coach Bill Clark said. “If we weren’t, now we are. I think we’ve got to be in that conversation now.”
It was as dominating a performance as you could have in a game of such magnitude and basically was over by halftime.
The Gamecocks (8-4, 4-2 OVC) compiled 503 yards, going over 500 for the third time this season.
They rushed for 299 yards against a defense that had been giving up an average of fewer than 100 yards a game. Eli Jenkins rushed for 120 yards and three touchdowns, while DaMarcus James and Troymaine Pope had two touchdowns each.
The defense, taking what Clark called “educated risks” on what EKU tried to do, held the Ohio Valley Conference’s best rushing offense to 111 yards on the ground and 213 yards total -- both season bests. It forced four turnovers, blocked a punt, had one fumble recovery for a touchdown and almost had another.
“I don’t think in your wildest dreams as a coach you can ever fathom your guys, against a really good team, are going to put every facet of the game together,” Clark said. “I saw it early in the week -- just that hunger.
“We just said we were going to leave no stone unturned. It was that important. Our guys felt that and they played that way. It’s a very special win, probably as good a win as I’ve been part of and I’ve been part of a few. To do those things against a really good team was really nice.”
The 68 points were their most the Gamecocks have scored in an OVC game, eclipsing the 59 they put on Tennessee-Martin in 2004 and the most in any game since scoring 72 on Cumberland in 2001. They scored 68 on Union College in 1999.
“We always knew we could put up points, but I can’t say we just knew we were going to score that many points against EKU,” Jenkins said.
Facing a team that had given up 20 points in its last four games combined, the Gamecocks had almost that many in the first quarter and had twice that many in the first half after Griffin Thomas kicked a 33-yard field goal on the final play of the second quarter.
Thomas earlier in the game tied Steven Lee’s 2003 school record with a 52-yarder that opened the scoring.
Speaking of tying records, James’ two touchdowns in the first half gave him 19 rushing TDs for the season to tie Oscar Bonds’ 2004 single-season mark. The OVC record is 21.
The Gamecocks’ 40-3 halftime lead virtually assured the Colonels (7-3, 4-2) wouldn’t be completing a four-year sweep of this year’s JSU seniors or be repeating the debacle of 2011 when they came back from 24 points down in the final eight minutes to win.
“Beating EKU, it’s a long time coming; that’s a little revenge there,” senior linebacker Rashad Smith said. “Before the game we already knew there was nothing to say. We didn’t need any speeches or anything like that. We could see it in our eyes. Honestly, I teared up twice before the game. ...
“We were talking about that (2011 game) at halftime. We were making sure (it wouldn’t happen again) because that was the most sickening moment in my life. I never felt this passionate against a team in my life – high school, middle school, Little League, anything.”
A couple weeks ago, the prospect of the Gamecocks getting in the expanded 24-team playoff field seemed bleak. They were 1-2 in the league, already had lost to one team projected at the time to make the field and still had to face the league’s two preseason favorites.
Now, they appear to have the upper hand on at least one of the two bids the OVC is likely to get -- even if they lose to second-ranked league-leading Eastern Illinois (9-1) next week on the road. They are one of four OVC teams with two league losses, but are the only one of those with two losses overall.
“This certainly doesn’t hurt us, I don’t think,” quarterback Max Shortell said. “I don’t know what has to happen for us to make it, but I’m sure that helped us.”
There wasn’t a whole lot the Gamecocks did wrong. In the first half alone, they outgained the Colonels 339 yards to 67 and held the OVC’s top rushing offense to only 25 yards on 24 carries. Ketrick Wolfe even scored a defensive touchdown, scooping up a Jared McClain fumble at the goal line.
Clark said fans would probably see two quarterbacks from JSU in the game and the Gamecocks alternated between Shortell and Eli Jenkins – sometimes in the same series -- both of whom missed some or all or the last three games with injuries.
Shortell, who hadn’t played since hurting his knee against Tennessee State on Oct. 12, was 8 of 13 for 130 yards passing in the first half, while Jenkins rushed for 83 yards – 71 on the first touchdown of JSU’s 24-point second quarter. Shortell finished 14-of-20 for 190 yards and a touchdown in the game.
“It felt good to be back,” Shortell said. “It was a little shaky at first but once I got into rhythm with our receivers it felt awesome to be back on the field. It’s tough being on the sidelines, that’s for sure.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.