The 24th-ranked Gamecocks (1-1) get a chance for redemption Saturday when they visit No. 21 preseason OVC favorite Eastern Kentucky (2-1) in their conference opener that potentially is an elimination game for the conference crown.
“This game has produced some great plays on both sides, has decided who’s going to the playoffs and who wins the conference championship probably more than any other game between any other two teams in the OVC,” Gamecocks coach Jack Crowe said Monday. “I’m sure everybody else who plays in this league is going to be keeping up with the quarter-by-quarter score in this one.”
Those who did keep up last year probably stopped watching after three quarters and couldn’t have believed what they saw when it was over. The last time these two teams met JSU blew a 24-point lead in the final seven minutes at home and lost 52-48. It cost the Gamecocks the upper hand in the OVC race and ultimately an NCAA playoff bid.
Crowe accepted the blame for it again Monday, pinning it on his mistake of a liberal substitution pattern thinking the game was in the bag. One of those moves was giving a career scout-teamer his first career carry, which was promptly fumbled and returned by the Colonels for a touchdown.
It’s a nightmare the Gamecocks would care not to relive, but it will be very much in their thoughts as they go through the week and the game.
“It just started unraveling like a ball of yarn so fast … you really couldn’t do anything to stop it,” senior defensive tackle DiMetrio Tyson recalled. “What’s motivating us now is to not let that happen.
“It still sits there. You can be on Facebook and see a picture from that game and every memory comes back. It’s one of those things you just have to live with for a year until you can reconcile or fix it, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The Gamecocks were having their way with the Colonels. Washaun Ealey rushed for 217 yards. Alan Bonner caught nine passes for 205. Both scored two touchdowns.
They were up 48-24 with 7:25 left after an 83-yard Ealey touchdown run and appeared back to having their postseason destiny in their hands. Then the unconscionable happened.
A long touchdown pass, a botched onsides kick, the fumble return and 28 points later, the Gamecocks had lost.
“I think we thought it was Homecoming or Parents Day or something (and) we’re supposed to play everybody,” Crowe said. “I personally did the discredit of substituting too many people too fast and we lost the momentum.
“The disappointing thing is we didn’t rally whenever it turned. It was an anomaly.”
But it wasn’t the first time an important game — or even an EKU game — got away from the Gamecocks in recent years
They blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead with 13 minutes left at Tennessee Tech. They lost at EKU in a game Ryan Perrilloux was intercepted five times. EKU also beat them two years ago when the Gamecocks were playing to be the No. 1 team in the country.
None of those losses hurt more than last year’s.
“Ever since the ending of that game I’ve been ready to get back at EKU,” Bonner said. “My biggest memory of that game is looking up at that scoreboard and seeing zero-zero-zero and we lost.
“I had a good game, but what was on the scoreboard last, that’s what gets me every time, and I want to change that this year. That seed was planted after we played them last year and I think it’s time for that seed to come on out.”
As painful as that loss was to take, the Gamecocks don’t want to forget it. They’ve used it as a rallying cry during their summer workouts and throughout preseason camp.
Tyson said something about it to the young linemen around him and he plans to say something to the whole team Thursday.
“You never want to forget,” he said. “It’s like what they say about history: If you forget your history it reoccurs. We can’t forget it. Until we recover from it, then it just always has to be and use it for motivation to play better.
“As much as we want to say it was last year, if we forget last year then it’ll just happen again. We played a good game against them, but in the end (it got away). We still don’t have that instinct to put people away. This will be a great week to find it.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.