In Saturday’s quarterfinal playoff game at Eastern Washington, the Gamecocks will go up against their fourth conference player of the year quarterback in five weeks. They could face another next week — and definitely will play an offensive player of the year — if they win.
To their credit — and it has been the key to getting this deep into the playoffs — they’ve weathered the storm pretty well, holding them to less than a 50 percent completion rate, a shade more than 500 yards and the last two to passer ratings under 100.
“When you’re playing great players you have to play with great effort,” JSU coach Bill Clark said. “We’ve at least done that.”
This week it’s Eastern Washington sophomore Vernon Adams. But in the run-up to their biggest game as a Division I program, the Gamecocks have taken on McNeese State’s Cody Stroud, the Southland Conference Offensive Player of the Year; Samford’s Andy Summerlin, the Southern Conference OPOY; and, two weeks before that, Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo, the Ohio Valley Conference’ top player.
Not only the top players in their leagues, Adams and Garoppolo are two of the three finalists for the Walter Payton Award that goes to the FCS Player of the Year on Monday in Philadelphia. Towson running back Terrance West is the other.
Garoppolo had the best success against the Gamecocks. His team was the only one to beat the Gamecocks, cruising 52-14 after opening a 35-0 lead in the first quarter, but he didn’t really light them up the way he has done virtually everyone else this year. Of course, a brutal wind played into that.
Garoppolo completed 15 of 24 for 169 yards — all season lows — with two touchdowns for a 149.50 passer rating. He has a 171.81 passer rating against EIU’s 12 other opponents.
“He wasn’t much of a threat against us,” Gamecocks linebacker Ketrick Wolfe said.
The Gamecocks could face Garoppolo again next week if both teams win. Or they could face West, as Towson plays EIU Friday night.
Wolfe said the Gamecocks do play more physical against these better quarterbacks, but beyond that there is no special technical thread that runs through their success.
“It’s nothing more than challenging our guys,” defensive coordinator Duwan Walker said. “All of (the quarterbacks) have been different in their own special way. We just challenge each part of our defense.
“It’s more cause and effect. If we cause this to happen, this should be the effect.”
Summerlin and Stroud both entered their playoff games against JSU with passer ratings above 140, but were a combined 25 of 64 for 336 yards and the Gamecocks sacked them 17 times. Stroud threw for 255 yards, but the Gamecocks dumped him 11 times.
“I think we step it up a notch against these type players,” linebacker Dustin Gayton said. “We practice every day to perfection because we know (if) we get that done, the business is going to be handled on Saturday.”
The Gamecocks’ play against this latest barrage of top quarterbacks is just a parcel of what has become a strong pass defense. They entered the week ranked 10th nationally in passing yards allowed (173.8) and sixth in pass efficiency defense, holding teams to a 101.41 rating. They’ve given up more than 120 yards passing only twice in the seven games since their open date and just eight touchdown passes in the stretch.
Adams is expected to provide the sternest test since Garoppolo. Not only is he an accurate thrower, he runs like a tailback. He has completed 66 percent of his pass attempts for 4,276 yards and 51 touchdowns, while rushing for 518 yards and four scores. He has thrown for more than 400 yards four times this year, including 411 in the season-opening win at Oregon State, and tossed at least four touchdown passes eight times, including six against Montana and five in each of his last two games.
He ranks second nationally in total offense, third in passing yards and first in pass efficiency. He reminds a lot of people of another quarterback playing in the Pacific Northwest, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks.
“He throws it very, very well, but you’ll see players will have him wrapped up and he’s spinning out of it throwing the ball, looking for an open wide receiver or getting the first down with his feet,” Gayton said. “His balls are on the money and if you don’t keep him contained he’s going to swing out and find an open man.”
Actually, the Gamecocks have faced six conference players of the year this season. The other two are Alabama State linebacker Kourtney Berry, the SWAC Newcomer of the Year, and North Alabama linebacker Tavarius Wilson, the Gulf South Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Berry recorded five tackles against the Gamecocks in the season opener. Wilson had 11 tackles, including one for loss.
The Gamecocks beat their teams, too.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.
JSU’s Quarterback Gauntlet
vs JSU (C-A-I-Yds-TD (rating)) vs all others
Jimmy Garoppolo, E. Illinois 15-24-0-169-2 (149.15) 322-494-9-4560-49 (171.81)
Andy Summerlin, Samford 7-24-0-81-1 (71.27) 293-454-13-3559-25 (142.83)
Cody Stroud, McNeese St. 18-40-2-255-1 (96.80) 193-330-5-2680-27 (150.67)
Vernon Adams, E. Washington Saturday’s opponent 273-415-12-4276-51 (187.10), 113-518-4 rush