The Gamecocks, preseason favorites to win the Ohio Valley Conference and top 10 in both major preseason polls, own the best in-conference winning percentage of any team in its Football Championship Subdivision league in the country since joining the OVC in 2003. But there have been times they’ve left their fan base to wonder if the team and that record are one and the same.
Even when the Gamecocks went undefeated through the first two months of last season — streaking to an 8-0 start that included a dramatic upset of Ole Miss and had them on the verge of being the No. 1 team in the country on their level — there were elements of inconsistency that left coach Jack Crowe to admit he “never knew the team in the way I needed to know a team that had a chance to be special.”
Each of their first four wins came down to the last play or closing seconds, and even though they continued to win, the successes weren’t satisfying. Eventually, it would prove to be their downfall.
As much as the wins manifested themselves early, the losses manifested themselves late. As it turned out, if the Gamecocks hadn’t beaten Southeast Missouri in the final 15 seconds on Senior Day, they would have lost their last four games of the year — and that includes the collapse they had in the final 12 minutes at Tennessee Tech that cost them the OVC title.
“We’ve got to find a consistency of performance,” Crowe said. “When you look back over last year, which you put up against other years, we have just not had the consistency it takes to distinguish yourself.”
And that’s on both sides of the ball. To Crowe, the most well-played football game is something that goes 24-21 — with the Gamecocks getting the 24, of course.
And their record over the years bears it out. Since joining the OVC, in games JSU scores 24 points or more, its record is 54-8. The mark swings to 6-22 when scoring 23 points or fewer.
When the Gamecocks give up 21 or more, their record is 19-25. At 29 points-plus, it’s 4-18. When they hold teams below 20 points, they’re 41-5.
There are several instances during Crowe’s tenure where the Gamecocks would play several games in a row holding opponents to 17 points or fewer, then somebody would put together a 35- or 44-point game against them.
That’s going to happen sometimes, when an opponent’s style just lends itself to a high-scoring affair. The key is not being surprised by it.
“You go over 28 points, I think you’ve exposed yourself,” Crowe said. “We’ve got to make the 21 number real for us. Not that we can’t hold somebody under 21, but you start going over that with any consistency, you’re just asking to get beat.”
If giving up 28 points in a game is bad, then how about 28 in a quarter? That’s what the Gamecocks did last year at Tennessee Tech, and it still bothers them to this day.
They blew a 17-point lead, giving up 28 points in the final 11:33 and, the Ole Miss win notwithstanding, had to keep their fingers crossed for a favorable draw in the playoffs.
Much of the confidence the Gamecocks carry into the season is tied to a stout defense, anchored by a front four potentially as good as any in the country, and the presence of a veteran quarterback.
Three of the front four — Co-Preseason Player of the Year Monte Lewis, defensive end Jamison Wadley and hybrid bandit end Rodney Garrott — are preseason All-OVC picks. The other is nose DiMetrio Tyson, a converted defensive end.
The Gamecocks recorded only 14 sacks last year — 7.5 from the front four — but with the emphasis of the defense shifting from the linebackers to the front, their “Four Forcemen” have the chance to flourish, and those numbers are likely to meet the increased but undisclosed expectations.
“With those four, if they can stay healthy, we can be pretty danged salty,” new defensive coordinator Chris Boone said.
Marques Ivory returns for his fourth year with the team and second as the full-time starting quarterback, some 40 pounds slimmer than the version that finished the 2010 season. The decrease in weight will increase his mobility; the maturity factor has long been there.
Ivory is surrounded by a veteran group of receivers and a running game bolstered by Georgia transfer Washaun Ealey. And, of course, Coty Blanchard, the hero of the Ole Miss win, returns to provide a change of pace to Ivory after playing baseball in the spring.
The only question is the development of the offensive line, which Crowe said “has to have a complete rebirth.” The unit suffered a major blow early in camp when tackle Odie Rush, their only pick on the preseason All-OVC offense, broke his leg. He is expected back at some point in the season.
The start JSU got off to last year was among the best in school history. How much of it can be tied directly to the Ole Miss win is open to debate.
Garrott said beating Ole Miss “helped us, but I don’t think losing to them would have hurt us,” because a loss to a bigger program was expected from the outside. Crowe said the season’s success “would probably have been unlikely” had they not won all the close games early.
Of course, the Gamecocks couldn’t have gone 8-0 without winning that first game — duh — but they were anticipating being strong enough to beat the teams on their own level that remained, just like they did in 2009 after they got past Georgia Tech and Florida State.
But it was never easy. After beating Ole Miss, they needed a long touchdown pass with 16 seconds left to beat Chattanooga, a sharp-eyed official’s favorable ruling in overtime to hold off upstart Georgia State and Brooks Robinson’s interception with two seconds left to survive at Eastern Illinois.
The only real easy ones they had all year were a 24-0 win over Tennessee State and a 56-3 rout of Austin Peay that took them to 8-0 right before their open week.
One thing the close wins did do for them was instill a confidence they could win in the fourth quarter. Five years earlier, they started the season with three straight last-minute losses and struggled to finish 6-5.
If anything, last year’s travails served to raise the questions about the validity of the record. Having gone through the spring and seen his players respond, Crowe said he has none of those questions this year. In fact, he’s more comfortable with this team than he has been with any in a long time.
“I know more about this team than any team I’ve ever coached here and more about this team than any team I’ve coached as a head coach, more of what’s in the minds and hearts of these guys than any team I’ve ever been head coach of,” he said. “I think there’s engrained in this group of players a mentality that is rare. There’s a thread of confidence that I expect to lead to consistency.”
The players even admitted the big start last year had them getting ahead of the game. Having good teams denied a playoff berth in 2008 by the selection process and in 2009 by NCAA academic sanctions, they talked of making a national championship run throughout the season and thought of conference titles and playoff games before anything was a sure thing.
Having learned that lesson, even with higher expectations, the Gamecocks aren’t saying national championship game or bust this year. Not publicly at least.
“We kind of did that last year and that was a mistake,” Ivory said. “If we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll get the things we’re supposed to get.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.