Saturday's game could eliminate -- or save -- JSU's playoff hopes
by Al Muskewitz
Nov 06, 2013 | 2018 views |  0 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jacksonville State wide receiver Josh Barge catches along pass in front of Austin Peay defensive back Roderick Owens. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
Jacksonville State wide receiver Josh Barge catches along pass in front of Austin Peay defensive back Roderick Owens. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
JACKSONVILLE — Caleb Lawrence was meeting with reporters Monday when he was reminded of something he said a couple weeks ago at a time Jacksonville State’s football season seemed at a crossroad.

Knowing the expectations the program has of itself, the junior nose tackle said the Gamecocks “need” to be in the FCS playoffs.

“Yup, that’s what I said,” he said.

And he wasn’t backing down.

And now the Gamecocks are in a position to help themselves do something about it.

Beating Eastern Kentucky on Saturday will elevate JSU into postseason consideration. A loss, with league-leading No. 2 Eastern Illinois up next on the road, likely will eliminate the Gamecocks.

Right now, EKU (6-3, 4-1) is one game behind EIU in the Ohio Valley Conference standings, but it has three overall losses. Jacksonville State, Tennessee State, Tennessee-Martin and Murray State all have two league losses, but JSU and Murray have played one fewer game and JSU is the only one of the four with two overall losses. (Murray has four.)

This week, The Sports Network projected the two Easterns as the OVC’s representatives in the expanded 24-team playoff field. If the Gamecocks win this week, the supposition is they likely will replace the Colonels in that conversation.

The Gamecocks haven't been in those projections. They’ve been ranked only once this season and today are just on the outside of the Top 25

It was only a couple weeks ago they were 1-2 in the OVC going into their open date and the most challenging part of their schedule that included the 1 and 2 teams in the league’s preseason poll.

The Gamecocks lost their conference opener to Murray State in overtime, then bounced back to beat Tennessee-Martin on the road. The next week they lost to a nationally ranked Tennessee State team that looked playoff-worthy at the time, and had two weeks to decide what they would do next.

“It was worrisome at that point,” JSU head coach Bill Clark said. “We had a chance to go either way. Martin was such a huge game for us. That really, to me, was the biggest game we had by far. That was the one I was most nervous, keyed up, about, because I could see us going either way.”

Senior linebacker Robert Gray, a redshirt freshman defensive back the last time JSU made the playoffs (2010), never lost confidence about the Gamecocks being in this position.

“I knew there’d always be a shot to get back in there, especially how in the past things have happened in our league,” he said. “People beat up on each other all the time, so you always have a chance to get in there.

“I never lost confidence in getting to that No. 2 spot. I’d like to be the No. 1 spot, but EIU looks pretty dominant right now.”

EKU coach Dean Hood accepts Saturday as an elimination game. But he says everybody in the OVC falls into that mode the moment they suffer their second loss in league play.

“Any time you’ve got two losses in this league, you are just asking for trouble,” he said. “If you play good down the stretch, you’ve got a chance, but that’s a different thing especially when you have a zero-loss team. If EIU had one loss and you had a chance to tie the thing like we did a couple years ago, you’ve got a better chance.

“The playoffs have expanded so you’ve got a little better chance, but we just look at it that you’re probably not going to go through the conference without a loss as good as it is, and if you get that one loss you might as well settle into every game after this as a must win because you’re putting your fate in some Japanese math – if this happens and that happens and that happens, all that kind of stuff.”

Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.

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