The Gamecocks set Division I school records for yardage and plays and made some NCAA history with their third straight overtime game, but it all seemed so hollow as they lost their Ohio Valley Conference opener to Murray State 35-34 when the Racers completed a two-point conversion to answer JSU’s overtime score.
The Gamecocks (4-1, 0-1 OVC) amassed 652 net yards on 98 plays, rallied from an early 10-point deficit and forced overtime on Griffin Thomas’ 25-yard field goal on the final play of regulation.
They even scored first in overtime — on DaMarcus James’ third touchdown of the game — and had Murray State down to its last play. But the Racers (3-2, 1-0) converted two fourth-down plays in the drive, then found the end zone on Ole Miss transfer quarterback Maikhail Miller’s 1-yard run and won it when Miller hit Jeremy Harness on the sudden-death conversion.
“It’s just sickening,” Clark said. “I was so proud of them for how they fought and then have to go into the locker room and talk about a loss, it was almost … unreal.”
The loss was Clark’s first as a college head coach and snapped JSU’s nine-game winning streak against the Racers. More importantly, it forces the Gamecocks to play catch-up in the race for a possible second OVC bid in the expanded FCS playoffs.
Murray’s last win in the series was in overtime in 2003. The Gamecocks had won their last six overtime games, including the last two weeks over Division II North Alabama and FCS Georgia State.
Ivy League Penn played three straight overtime games in 2006. No team has ever played three straight extra-session games on the FBS level.
Murray State coach Chris Hatcher called it one of his biggest wins ever, deserving of a special horseshoe on the big-win wall in his office.
“It always helps to start off conference play with a win,” he said. “To win in the fashion we won in, to play a game against a great football team and then to make one more play than they did at the end, that says a lot about the character of our team.”
The Gamecocks were one of seven 4-0 teams in the FCS entering the weekend, but were unranked because they were a team living on the edge. Mistakes ruined them Saturday.
And it wasn’t just failing to make a stop on fourth down in overtime. They had four turnovers — Max Shortell was intercepted twice in less than a minute in the fourth quarter — and the usually reliable Thomas missed two field goals. The Gamecocks also had what appeared to be a clock management issue at the end of regulation that may have kept them from going for the winning touchdown.
On top of that, Josh Barge fumbled into the end zone on his way to an apparent touchdown at the end of the first half, and Markis Merrill dropped another seemingly sure touchdown in the third quarter.
“Any time you turn the ball over it hurts, especially in the fourth quarter when the game’s on the line,” Shortell said. “We left probably five, six touchdowns on the board.
“You look at our stats — over 600 yards in total offense — we’ve got to put up more than what we did. We’ve got to find our way to score and not turn the ball over. We were rolling. It goes back to too many turnovers.”
Shortell finished the game completing 22 of 35 passes for 285 yards. James finished with 189 yards rushing on 27 carries.
Despite all the mistakes, the Gamecocks had a chance to pull out another close one at home in regulation. Six of their last eight wins that have come in the final two minutes — and eight of the last 11 — have been in JSU Stadium.
This time, they reached the Murray 6 with less than 20 seconds left and a timeout in hand. But Clark saw all the potential dangers of taking a shot at the end zone there, let the clock run and eventually called time with four seconds left.
The Gamecocks faced similar clock management situation at the end of the first half of the opener at Alabama State and lost a touchdown because of it.
Thomas, who had missed from 46 and 42 yards earlier in the game, drilled his 25-yarder through the uprights like an extra point to send the game into overtime.
It took the Gamecocks only two plays in the extra session to find the end zone. James covered it all, going the final 13 on the second snap. He also scored on runs of one and 21 yards in the third quarter.
“They call me out there to run the ball, so when I get out there, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do,” he said.
Now, all the Gamecocks had to do was keep the Racers out of the end zone to win. Caleb Lawrence pressured Miller on first down. The entire defense stuffed Miller on second down. Rashod Byers nearly intercepted a third-down pass intended for Walter Powell, but got hurt on the play.
The Racers immediately ran a pick route on Byers’ replacement and completed a 13-yard pass to Harness. Miller completed 14 of 26 for 106 yards but also rushed for 134 yards and two scores.
“The fourth down is just sickening,” Clark said. “We really debated about bringing pressure against that guy or make him fit it in there. I could just see us bringing a guy and him having a chance to run the ball, which he had done on us. We dropped.”
The Racers converted another fourth-down play in the drive, then Miller broke over from the 1.
Clark knew the Racers were going for two. They had one play called, but the Gamecocks sniffed it out and forced a timeout. The delay helped them, Miller said.
The quarterback rolled right and found Harness, after the Racers picked JSU’s defensive backs. Clark said he saw one defender get knocked off his route.
“We did have a good play called, but we thought that pick route should’ve been a flag,” cornerback Junior Hough said.
The Gamecocks almost played zone coverage there, but Clark said it was a “team decision” to put pressure on the quarterback in tight.
He called Hatcher’s decision to go for two a “gutsy call,” but the Racers had no choice. Their defense was wearing down, and he saw an opportunity.
“When you’re on the road against a team that’s ranked higher than you, that’s had any success, why not?” Hatcher said, explaining his decision. “Why not one play to win it. Fortunately for us, we executed the play well and won the ballgame.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.