But it all destructed — or more accurately, self-destructed — in the final 11:33 of the game.
The fourth-ranked Gamecocks were poised to wrap up a share of the OVC title and the league’s automatic bid to the playoffs in a nice little package Saturday. Instead, they suffered through a meltdown of historic proportions, giving up four touchdowns in the final 11:33 to fall to Tennessee Tech 35-24.
The Gamecocks (9-2, 6-2 OVC) were leading 24-7 after putting together a drive for the ages. All they had to do was keep it in the road. Instead, they went off the cliff.
“I’m at a loss for words,” junior running back Calvin Middleton said. “It was holding something but you can’t touch it. We had it in our hands. It was our job to get the job done and we didn’t do it.”
Other players who could find the words described the feeling as “sickening” (defensive tackle Jamison Wadley) to “dumbfounded” (running back Calvin Middleton) to “disheartening” and “tragic” (bandit Rodney Garrott).
“I’ve never felt this bad after a loss,” Garrott said.
With the loss the OVC automatic bid goes to Southeast Missouri — a team JSU beat in dramatic fashion 29-27 last week. Now, having lost two of the last three weeks, the Gamecocks await today’s selection show broadcast to learn their post-season fate.
They’re likely to have lost one of the five seeds in the 20-team tournament and perhaps even a home game when they play what is expected to be their first playoff game since 2004 on Dec. 4.
Amazingly, the Tech comeback came after the Gamecocks put together a brilliant 21-play, 95-yard drive that consumed 10 minutes and 34 seconds, covering parts of the third and fourth quarters and seemed to seal the game.
Tech coach Watson Brown said that if the Gamecocks had scored once more it would “done us in.” Instead, the Golden Eagles (5-6, 4-4) put together four touchdown drives that took combined less time than JSU’s big drive.
They went 80 yards in seven plays in 2:07 to match that touchdown — a 7-yard run by Jocques Crawford to make it 24-14 with 11:33 to play.
Their next two drives were just as efficient. They went 84 yards in eight plays in 2:31 – beating the Gamecocks several times with screens, including Zack Ziegler’s touchdown — to cut JSU’s lead to 24-21. Then they went 88 yards in seven plays in 1:48, taking the lead on Cody Forbes’ 2-yard run 28-24.
The Golden Eagles scored their last touchdown with 1:46 to play after the Gamecocks were forced to go for it on fourth down deep in their end.
“It got away when people can take the ball and come right back and answer a score like they did,” Crowe said. “We haven’t had many people go the length of the field on us. They certainly went the length of the field more than anybody has.
“I thought the first half, that we were the only thing that was making them consistent. It didn’t appear to me they did anything different (in the second half). I may look at the film and think different, but I’d be slow to say that. … We got what we deserved. This game wasn’t taken from us. They outplayed us.”
The Gamecocks amassed 371 of their 408 total yards through the long touchdown drive. Tech collected 258 of its 455 yards after that.
Golden Eagles quarterback Cass Barnes compiled 213 yards by himself in the quarter. He was 10-of-11 passing for 164 yards and rushed for 49 yards on six carries — and didn’t do any of the scoring.
“We just didn’t finish, that’s all I can say about it,” Wadley said. “They kept bringing the fire and we didn’t get off blocks and make plays when we had the opportunity.”
“We just lost our composure,” defensive coordinator Greg Stewart said.
The drive the Gamecocks put together to grab their 24-7 lead was one for the ages.
It featured 15 rushing plays for 49 yards and Marques Ivory hitting 5 of 6 passes — to four different receivers — for 46 yards. He hit his first four passes in the drive, completing the march with a 13-yard scoring strike to Justin Howard, and was 17-of-35 for 191 yards and two touchdowns in the game.
The Gamecocks converted four of five third down snaps in the drive and the one they failed, they picked up on fourth down to keep the chains moving.
“That was a good drive for us,” Middleton said. “But it wasn’t enough.”
Middleton scored the Gamecocks’ first touchdown – on a 2-yard run – and finished with 120 yards rushing on 26 carries.
The Gamecocks led 17-7 at the end of an uneven first half that saw them produce plenty of offense and opportunities but also two missed field goals (one blocked) and several major penalties that impacted both sides of the ball.
JSU hadn’t created a turnover in the first half of its previous three games, but the Gamecocks – specifically Garrott – created two in 18 seconds of the second quarter but produced only seven points for the effort.
Garrott separated Barnes from the ball with 9:34 left in the quarter and recovered it at the Golden Eagles 6. On the next play Marques Ivory tossed a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cory Freeman to extend JSU’s lead to 14-0. It was Freeman’s first touchdown in 42 career games.
Garrott forced another fumble by Barnes on Tech’s next possession and Robert Gray recovered. This time, the Gamecocks got into the red zone but stalled and James Esco missed a 36-yard.
“Turnovers win games, unfortunately not today,” Garrott said. “I was just doing my job. I was doing what anybody would’ve done in that situation. I felt like it gave us a good motivation.”
Esco also had a 38-yard field goal attempt blocked on the series right before Tech’s back-to-back fumbles. He then kicked a 37-yarder with 41 seconds left in the half to give JSU a 17-7 halftime lead. He had hit eight of his last nine coming into the game.
The Golden Eagles put together an 80-yard touchdown drive to cut JSU’s lead to 14-7 with 2:41 left in the half and the Gamecocks gave them plenty of help doing it.
Crawford scored on a 5-yard run, but the Gamecocks moved the drive along with three major penalties — facemask and two personal fouls.
“We missed field goals early that could’ve given us a better margin,” Crowe said. “We gave them a drive with three 15-yard penalties one time. We were over the edge there a little bit. And then there was a period of time there where we didn’t look like we could handle what they were doing to us.
“But there never was a time when any of it was consistently hurting. … It looked like to me defensively we lost our urgency.”
Both teams had credible threats in the first quarter, but neither found the end zone.
It didn’t take the Gamecocks long to score in the second, though.
The teams changed ends after Middleton was downed at the 2, and on the first play of the second quarter Middleton blasted into the end zone.
The Gamecocks used two big plays to reach the edge of the red zone on their next possession of the second quarter, but miscues and a blocked field goal prevented them from adding to their lead.
A personal foul penalty at the end of a 38-yard Coty Blanchard run pushed the ball back to the 29. A third-down fumble by Blanchard stalled the drive and the Golden Eagles blocked Esco’s 38-yard try to keep it 7-0.