Today, it’s starting to play like the unit head coach Jack Crowe envisioned when he allowed himself to think of the future.
That defense took another big step in its development Saturday — especially late — in a 37-28 victory at Tennessee Tech that kept the Gamecocks in the thick of a tick-tight early Ohio Valley Conference title chase. Now it faces an even bigger task.
The Gamecocks (3-2, 2-1 OVC) travel to Eastern Illinois, which has one of the most prolific passing games in the country. The Panthers (3-3, 2-1) rank second in the FCS in total offense and third in scoring and passing. Their quarterback, junior Jimmy Garoppolo, is second nationally in passing yards, touchdown passes, points responsibility and total offense. Junior inside receiver Eric Lora leads the nation in catches and receiving yards per game.
“His numbers are off the charts,” JSU offensive coordinator Ronnie Letson said of Garoppolo. “He’s a qualified quarterback, no doubt about it. He’s played well against us in the past (and) this system might fit him even better because his numbers are unbelievable.”
Garoppolo and Company may be, as JSU safeties coach Matt Wannebo suggested, fun to watch from the stands, but what they bode for the Gamecocks remains to be seen. After the loss at Eastern Kentucky, the Gamecocks ranked 106 or worse in all five major FCS defensive categories and were dead last in pass efficiency defense. But they’ve cut their losses over the last two weeks and now are no worse than 102 in any of the five categories, including 92nd in total defense and 59th against the pass.
“It’s a lot different,” Crowe said. “I think the real difference is how we line up and play the next time. The answer is probably in the first five minutes of next week.”
One thing is certain: EIU won’t give the Gamecocks’ defense a chance to catch its breath. The Panthers have run 100 or more snaps in three games already this season; they run a play every 16.7 seconds. JSU ran 90 plays last week, the most since at least 1995 — more than when it beat Ole Miss in double overtime in 2010 and more than twice it ran when scoring 72 against Cumberland in the 2001 Ashley Martin Game.
“Thank goodness (Saturday’s game) starts at 1:30,” Crowe said.
The strides JSU’s defense has made over the last two weeks can be tied to two areas — communication and maturity. Senior linebacker Nick Johnson said practice since the EKU game has been “much stronger than it was before” with players showing up “focused and with a purpose” every day. Over the last two weeks, Wannebo said, the communication in the secondary has been “probably as good as it’s ever been.”
The Gamecocks’ pass defense took a big upturn after holding run-oriented Southeast Missouri to 56 yards through the air. Last week, they held Tech to 266 total yards, which included a season-best 95 yards on the ground. They allowed only two of 10 third-down conversions and got their first interception of the season.
“I think they were where they were supposed to be,” Crowe said. “We’d given up a lot of things because guys didn’t do their jobs. We faltered a few times performance wise, but even in that I thought we understood we were playing inside the scheme and everybody was doing their part and making (Tech) do something about it.
“I think we took a step toward understanding the game plan, that commitment to executing the game plan was a part of playing good defense … We can be in this thing to the end if we go play good defense. We played good defense the other night, but we have to continue to make defensive improvement. We’ve got to be obsessed with it.”
Their best defense Saturday was an offense that generated 566 yards in 90 plays while controlling the ball for more than 41 minutes. For the second game in a row, quarterback Marques Ivory’s efficiency was the key to the Gamecocks establishing a running game that was the key to controlling the game.
It’s likely to be the aproach the Gamecocks take against all the high-powered offenses in the league they’ve left to see.
But when the defense needed to hold up its end Saturday, it did. It took the Golden Eagles 82 seconds to score the first touchdown of the game, but the Gamecocks made them work for much of anything else.
And in the fourth quarter, it was as much on its game as it has been all year. The Gamecocks stopped Tech’s last five possessions, the last four after taking the lead on Ivory’s 86-yard touchdown pass to freshman Telvin Brown with 1:06 left in the third quarter.
During that stand, the offense added a 10-play touchdown drive — capped by Washaun Ealey’s first TD of the season — for insurance.
“That was something we hadn’t seen from this defense, something we hadn’t seen much of lately,” Crowe said. “...I think in the fourth quarter the defense stood out to me more than that last fourth-quarter drive. That was a rally defense.
“We’ve had defenses a little bit around here that I wasn’t sure had that rally in them. That one had some rally in them.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @JSUSports_Star.