The Gators handed JSU its first shutout in 133 games, dominating with a stout defense while producing just enough offense to stay in the lead. The Gamecocks crossed midfield only twice – and both times missed field goal attempts – and were held to only 38 net yards in the second half.
The Gamecocks could be in for the same kind of set up next year as their emerging defense returns virtually intact while the offense tries to piece itself back together. It’s the kind of reversal common to programs on this level, and certainly not uncommon to JSU.
The defense loses only five players from the two-deep projected for the Florida game — one full-time starter — and could get a boost with the expected January return of Clarence Jackson, a dynamic linebacker who got caught in a compromising academic position at the end of last season.
The offense, meanwhile, loses eight players from that two-deep — seven of whom were starters, including quarterback Marques Ivory, running back Washaun Ealey, three veteran receivers and the left side of the offensive line. They do return, however, quarterback Coty Blanchard (if baseball doesn’t grab him), running backs Damarcus James and Troymaine Pope and receivers Telvin Brown and Gabe Chambers to make the rebuilding a little easier.
“You’ve got to build where your strengths are,” JSU coach Jack Crowe said Sunday. “I think there were moments of real strength defensively throughout the year; whether we have the heart to dominate defensively — that was a dominating defense out there (in Florida) — remains to be seen.
“We still have a couple shortcomings, but we have the numbers to build something over there. I think we’re going to be an emerging offense. I think we’ve got playmakers. I don’t think it’s as big a void as it was this year on defense. It’s comparable. There’s a shift.”
That JSU defense showed signs of what the future could hold Saturday. Granted the Gators don’t have the most dynamic offense in the country, but the Gamecocks gave up only one offensive touchdown to a top 10 FBS team. They forced the Gators to settle for three field goals and blocked another attempt.
“I thought we played real hard,” linebacker Ben Endress said. “We were really aggressive. We didn’t back down from anybody.
“As the year went on I think the defense got better every week. We had a few times when we took a step back, but we bounced back and played good (Saturday). We have to carry that over into next year and be the dominant defense that we can be, because we return a lot of guys.”
Odds and ends
The Gamecocks finished the regular season ranked 106 in total defense in the FCS, 102 against the pass, 99 in scoring defense and 92 against the run. Offensively, they were 27 in rushing, 48 in passing, 30 in total offense and 49 in scoring.
It’s the first time since 2007 (the oldest NCAA archived records immediately available) they did not lead the OVC in any of the 17 NCAA team statistical categories at the end of the regular season.
“Six and five, we have some room to make up,” Crowe said. “This was an average year. I would say 6-5 is representative of performance. I don’t think it’s representative of how our program is moving.”
Crowe will spend the next few days doing a “360-degree assessment” aimed at putting some teeth in the program’s goal of making “a real national FCS commitment.” The seeds were planted at a team meeting Sunday and are expected to take hold when the players return in January.
Look for the Gamecocks to pitch receiver/return specialist Alan Bonner, running back Washaun Ealey, offensive lineman Tori Mobley and defensive lineman DiMetrio Tyson for All-OVC when the coaches conference call is convened Monday.
Steven Coates finished Saturday's game at quarterback for the Gamecocks because Coty Blanchard couldn’t go back in following an ankle injury. Ealey was limited in his final college game by a groin pull. Starting quarterback Marques Ivory hurt his knee late in the game — "it felt weird," he said — but he appeared fine after the game.
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.