Jacksonville State’s game this week against Tennessee Tech is not one of them. Nor, for that matter, is the one the following week against Eastern Kentucky.
If the teams involved can’t get up for these, it’s either dead or just not paying attention.
“We are entering into the four biggest weeks of the year for us,” Gamecocks coach Jack Crowe said Monday. “They’re all about how bad you want to be a champion.
“We’re not a dominating team, but we’re very capable against the teams we have here on out. But if we don’t play good, we’ll get beat.”
The Gamecocks (5-2, 4-0 OVC), ranked 13th in the FCS Coaches Poll and 14th by the media, have plenty to motivate them this week, starting with homecoming — where they are 8-3 under Crowe, 6-2 since joining the OVC and 3-1 against Tech (the only loss being a 2001 non-conference game when late the day before their two most experience tight ends were declared ineligible for an NCAA rules violation).
If they win these next two games, they will clinch the conference’s automatic bid with two weeks still to play. And this is the team against which they had their monumental collapse last year, blowing a 17-point lead in the final 12 minutes to lose the conference championship that seemed all but assured after a 95-yard touchdown drive gave them a 24-7 lead with 13:40 to play.
Crowe said he still has the sour taste in his mouth, and he’s not alone.
“That loss against Tennessee Tech … was probably the worst loss I’ve ever felt,” senior bandit Rodney Garrott said. “We’ve been trying our whole careers to win a ring and we had someone take it from us, basically.
“We wear a bracelet that says, ‘And I won’t be denied, and this is going to be a true test of that and I think that’s going to be the motivation throughout the whole week. We’re first in the conference, so let’s go ahead and finish it the way we’re supposed to unlike last year.
“I think it’s good we have a lot of seniors on the team to be able to get that point across of how serious the game is and how big composure and being consistent is going to play a key role in this game – just like it did last year.”
Losing composure was the biggest element in the loss.
The Gamecocks lost their way against the no-huddle spread offense Tech discovered in the second half and stuck with this season. They were outgained 278 yards to 62 in the fourth quarter, giving up three touchdown drives of 80 yards-plus.
The Golden Eagles threw the final shovel of dirt on JSU’s title hopes with 1:46 left after JSU failed to convert on fourth down from its own 11 down by four. In a further indictment of the lack of composure, the Gamecocks also had three major penalties in the quarter, two for personal fouls.
“We weren’t consistent in that fourth quarter and it killed us,” Garrott said. “If you don’t play consistent, you get beat every time.
“Coach Crowe hasn’t let us forget that; that’s been a sticking point. We did lose the conference last year and we had a chance to have it won. He’s not going to have to tell us much about that. We’ve got that in our hearts right now. We’re ready to go for that.”
If the betting houses put lines on FCS games, this one might well be a pick ‘em. The Golden Eagles (4-2, 3-1), ranked 19th in the FCS Coaches Poll and 25th by the media, bring a veteran-laden team statistically similar to the Gamecocks.
They’re both ranked between 3 and 5 in most of the league’s major statistical categories. Tech has the leading rusher, leading receiver and third leading passer in the league. JSU has the second leading rusher and is second in the league in rushing defense. Both quarterbacks are dual threats.
“We’re a good football team … they’re a good football team; I think there are a lot of comparables,” Crowe said. “I think it’s a pretty event matchup. It’s all about how we play, how well we take a game plan, how well we take a scouting report, and turn it into performance. It’s just who’s going to bring their best preparation to this game.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.