In what seems like an every week occurrence, Jacksonville State faces another of the Ohio Valley Conference’s dynamic passing attacks — and this one is the best of the bunch.
The Gamecocks (4-3, 3-2 OVC) offer up Murray State to their fans this week in what might be the most entertaining homecoming opponent since Alcorn State brought Steve McNair to Paul Snow Stadium in 1992.
The Racers (3-4, 2-2) are third in the FCS in passing offense, fourth in total offense and fifth in scoring. Since getting into OVC play, they’ve scored 49 points or more in each of their last four games and more points in each of their last three than their first three non-conference games combined.
JSU coach Jack Crowe says without hesitation they are “the best offensive football team in the league.”
It all starts with quarterback Casey Brockman, the OVC preseason Player of the Year. When McNair came to JSU for a Halloween Homecoming in 1992, he threw for 500 yards and six touchdowns in a 59-45 Gamecocks victory. Brockman is capable of putting up similar numbers. He currently leads the country in passing and is second in total offense and passing yards. He averages 37 completions a game at a 70 percent clip.
Last year, Brockman threw for 421 yards and two touchdowns against the Gamecocks.
“This quarterback is better than the kid at Eastern Illinois,” Gamecocks defensive coordinator Chris Boone said. “He knows where to put the ball. I’m not taking anything away from the kid at Eastern Illinois, but they’ve been in their system longer. He’s a good player. He’s the reason they’re putting up all that yardage. It’s crazy.”
It’s another tempo game. Eastern Illinois was fast, but Murray isn’t called the Racers for nothing. They average 90 plays a game at an average of 19.6 seconds a snap; opponents feel like they’re playing an extra quarter. Given their fast pace and explosiveness, little wonder EIU and Murray combined for 1,142 yards and an FCS record 210 offensive plays when they got together on Sept. 22.
“Against these type offenses, you’ve got to play sound,” JSU cornerbacks coach Brandon Cooper said. “When you start blowing coverages, they’ll pick you apart and they’ll have 700 yards before you know it.”
Cooper is of the opinion the Gamecocks haven’t played “as well as we need to” against these type teams, but after giving up more than 800 yards through the air in the first three games, the developing young secondary has held its own. The Gamecocks are currently second in the OVC in pass defense and have colllected four of their five interceptions in the last two games.
They held Tennessee Tech’s Tre Lamb to 171 yards, but almost 100 of it came on three big plays and none to Tennessee transfer Da’Rick Rogers. They held EIU’s Jimmy Garoppolo to 220 yards the next week, and no passes of 20 yards or more. They don’t see UT Martin’s Derek Carr and Quentin Sims until next week.
“It says we can play with anybody as long as we do what we’re coached to do,” sophomore matchup corner Rashod Byers said. “That’s the main thing, just making sure we play how we’re coached … and that’s doing your part, not doing someone else’s job and making sure your job is getting done in the right manner.”
The Racers have six receivers with at least 24 catches, but the most dynamic is Walter Powell. The junior Z-receiver is second to EIU’s Erik Lora in the OVC in catches (71) and yards per game (130.3). Teammate senior X-receiver Dontel Watkins is seventh in the league in yards per game (71.1).
The key will be good tackling on the perimeter to limit yards after the catch and creating turnovers.
“We get it wrong, we get lit up,” Crowe said. “We get it right, we play good enough to win.”
Last week against Tennessee State, the Gamecocks gave up two runs over 30-plus yards and five passes of 19 yards or more (two for scores) in the first half. In the second half and overtime, though, they surrendered only one play longer than 15 yards and none over 20.
“In our head we know what’s a little excessive and what’s reasonable,” Byers said.
The other element key to holding down the Racers is controlling the tempo. Over their last four games, the Gamecocks have converted nearly 60 percent of their third-down situations (38 of 66) and are now sixth nationally converting the critical down. Murray’s defense, meanwhile, ranks 117th in scoring, 118th in total defense and dead last — 121st — against the pass.
“For us to control the tempo, when you run the ball if you don’t have an efficient passing game, you’re just going to take a lot of time off the clock and you’re not going to come up with enough points,” Crowe said. “But when you can add third-down conversions and if we can get our vertical game going along with it, then you can stay on the field and you can run the clock and you can score some points.”