The Gamecocks are about to embark on a gauntlet of quarterbacks who are not only three of the most prolific passers in the Ohio Valley Conference, but the entire Football Championship Subdivision.
It starts Saturday at Tennessee Tech, with its senior quarterback Tre Lamb and his Tennessee transfer receiver Da’Rick Rogers.
But they’re just the third of it. After that, the Gamecocks face Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo and then two weeks after that the best one of all, preseason OVC Player of the Year Casey Brockman of Murray State.
All those three have done so far in five games is pass for 4,924 yards and 38 touchdowns. They’re all ranked in the top seven nationally in total passing yards, the top eight in passing yards per game and the top 16 in total offense.
“It’s going to be a big challenge, but I think we have prepared good,” sophomore cornerback Rashod Byers said Monday. “All those days of getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning during the summer was preparing for this moment. I think we’re really ready to take on the challenge head-first.
“We put in the work in becuase we knew the pressure that’s going to be put on us when we play good passing teams. We know people are really going to be depending on us to make plays that we need to make for us to be successful. We put the overtime work in for these moments.”
Byers said he looks forward to these type of games because “it gives me more opportunities to make plays.”
The Gamecocks (2-2, 1-1 OVC) should have plenty of chances Saturday.
Lamb is the most efficient passer of the league’s Big Three quarterbacks so far this season, ranking seventh nationally (Eastern Kentucky’s T.J. Pryor, who threw for 231 yards and four first-half touchdowns against the Gamecocks on Sept. 22, is No. 2.)
He also is seventh in the FCS in total passing yards (1,418), eighth in yards per game (283.6) and 16th in total offense (278.6). He threw for 339 yards and four touchdowns against Hampton, 481 yards against Southeast Missouri and 278 yards last week against Murray State. What sets him apart from the other two is he’s a bigger threat to pull it down and run, and the Golden Eagles (2-3, 0-2) will scheme option plays to get him into the second level of the defense.
It helps to have a big-time target. Rogers replaces Tim Benford, last year’s OVC Offensive Player of the Year, as Tech’s lead receiver, landing softly after being dismissed at Tennessee, where he led the Southeastern Conference in receiving yards a year ago. He had 18 catches for 303 yards in the SEMO game. He’s currently fourth nationally in total receiving yards and seventh in yards per game.
“He was the best in the SEC when he was there,” JSU coach Jack Crowe said. “I don’t know who put that stamp on him, but I heard that from neutral parties; he’s certainly where the challenge starts. It was Benford last year ... and they replaced him with one of comparable if not more exceptional talent and they have just about everybody else back. Experience means a lot.
“The challenge for us defensively is very big. After seeing us play last week, we have to realize this is a different style of play. We’ll be in space a lot more; we’ve got to tackle. We’re fast enough to get there, smart enough to get there, we’ve got to make the tackles. They’re going to make some first downs, we need to keep first downs first downs (and) don’t let first downs be touchdowns.”
What makes Rogers so dangerous is he can line up in any of a half-dozen places on the field. That’s good for the Gamecocks, because they really don’t do specific matchups, although Crowe expressed confidence in any of his corners in a one-on-one situation. It will also be important for the defensive front to get pressure on Lamb.
Byers said he plans to spend extra time in the film room the next few weeks in an effort to find an advantage.
“The main thing is you have to have confidence, confidence you can get the job done,” he said. “As much as he comes to my side, I’m going to try to stick him. Every time I get my opportunity, make the best out of it. We just have to play our game. Don’t get away from what JSU corners are all about. As long as we stick to our game, then we’ll do good.”
Things haven’t gone well for the Gamecocks against the pass this year. They are ranked 103rd in total defense and 119 in pass efficiency defense, and still haven’t recorded an interception this season.
“It’s going to bother you because that’s what you want to do to help your team,” Byers said. “We’re being patient. We know it’s going to come.”
They did hold SEMO to only 56 yards passing last week, but the Redhawks threw only 11 passes. Knowing the teams in this upcoming wave are predominantly pass-oriented is likely to help their preparation.
“A lot of times we get lulled to sleep and a little not ready for the pass,” Byers said. “Now I think we’re getting more into expecting the pass so we’re going to know what we’re getting more.”
The Golden Eagles have been a sore spot for JSU even without their fast-paced passing game. They’ve beaten the Gamecocks each of the last two years, famously rallying for 28 points in the final 12 minutes of a complete emotional meltdown in 2010 and recovering a fumble in the final 90 seconds as the Gamecocks were driving for a potential game-tying touchdown.
“We have been very inconsistent in games with them,” Crowe said. “We played very well in spots in both games, but having the ability to finish them has been lacking in both cases. I don’t think we matchup poorly against them. All we need to do is take care of business every day and everybody accept their responsibility and go out and play and we’ll be fine in this football game.”
At least one player with the potential to play a major role in the game is willing to take up the gauntlet.
“I’m up for the challenge,” Byers said, “and ready to get the job done.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.