Dont blink, you might miss it.
Jacksonville State safety Robert Gray was watching film the other day when two things caught his eye.
On one deep ball, the opposing corner had fallen to the ground and the Panthers were already lined up and ready for the next snap before the hapless defensive back was even off the ground. In another clip, they picked up a long gain and were lined up to go again while the chain crew was still jogging up the line.
Time flies when you’re having fun.
“They’re kind of fun to watch because they have some imagination in what they’re doing,” JSU safeties coach Matt Wannebo said. “But that makes it harder to prepare for because you can’t expect the norm.”
That’s what the Gamecocks (3-2, 2-1 OVC) have to look forward to Saturday when they play the Panthers (3-3, 2-1) in a midseason OVC showdown.
It might not be too fun for the Gamecocks’ safeties and inside linebackers, though. They figure to have a really busy day if the Panthers’ most dymanic duo gets it going.
In a league that’s full of dynamic passing attacks, EIU has one of the best in the country. Junior quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo ranks second nationally in passing yards, total offense, touchdown passes and points responsibility, and fifth in completions per game. His favorite target is Erik Lora, a junior who leads the country in catches and yards per game and, as an inside receiver, will keep the Gamecocks’ inside linebackers and safeties on their toes.
The only teams close to the Panthers’ combination are Stephen F. Austin, with the No. 3 quarterback and No. 2 receiver; Murray State, with the No. 4 quarterback and No. 5 receiver (which JSU sees in two weeks); Cornell, with the No. 5 quarterback and No. 3 receiver; and Old Dominion, with the No. 1 quarterback and No. 7 receiver.
Garoppolo has thrown for 2,255 yards this season on 177-for-288 passing with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He has more passing yards individually than 119 teams in the FCS, more completions than 118 teams and only one team has more touchdown passes. He has thrown for 400 yards or more in each of his last two games and more than 385 yards in each of his last four.
Lora has caught 72 passes for 1,001 yards and nine touchdowns. He has more catches than Austin Peay and 27 other teams in the FCS, more yards than 51 teams and as many or more touchdown catches than five teams in the OVC. He had three games of 12 or more catches this season, including 21 for 269 yards against Murray State and 17 for 215 against UT Martin, and is working on a string of six straight 100-yard receiving games.
All but one of Lora’s catches have been delivered by Garoppolo. EIU coach Dino Babers said their bond is typical of all good quarterback-receiver combinations.
“It’s like a marriage,” he said. “You know, that old Ronald Reagan deal where the First Lady answers his words for him.”
Of all the quality passers in the OVC, Crowe considers Garoppolo the more true pro-style quarterback. He compared Lora to New England’s Wes Welker.
“There’s an anticipation in accuracy that (Garoppolo) can almost tell where (Lora’s) going when he sticks his foot in the ground,” Crowe said. “You can give this guy a two-way go and Garoppolo can read his body and throw it like he knew where he was going. It’s backyard, but it’s really, really good.”
“The thing is,” Wannebo said, “they don’t jump up and down and say look at me; they just go about their business. If they were more into star power or whatever and people wanting to know who they were, people would see a whole lot more of them across the country. But they are low-key about their approach. They go about their business and don’t worry about what people are saying or writing about them.”
A big game against an offense like EIU’s would do wonders for the Gamecocks’ young defense. They held Tennessee transfer Da’Rick Rogers to five catches last week and picked up their first interception of the season. Against a team that has run 100 plays or more three times this season and averages 50 passes a game, there will be plenty of opportunities to make plays.
“From a secondary standpoint we look forward to matchups like this,” Gray said. “A lot people say we’re not very good because of some of the big plays we’ve given up, but we look forward to challenges like this. The outcome says a lot about us.”
UT Martin rattled the Panthers into five turnovers last week and sacked Garoppolo five times. JSU linebacker Nick Johnson said being physical will be a key to the Gamecocks’ success.
A short memory might be a good approach too. The Panthers have run 100 plays or more three times this year and run a play an average of every 16.7 seconds.
“There is a lot of movement, a lot of motion, a lot of hurry-up stuff,” Wannebo said. “What they have to be able to do is keep their poise about them. Even though something happens, line up and get ready for the next play. You can’t get caught up in, ‘I just gave up a 15, 20-yard pass.’ You just have to make the tackle, get up and move on to the next play. You can’t be looking back about what you could’ve done different. You better be able to move on real quick.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @JSUSports_Star.