But we also knew that Clark’s first JSU team was not among the elite in the Ohio Valley Conference, and that showed during a 31-15 loss to Tennessee State on Saturday.
The Gamecocks faced one of the OVC’s elite and had moments. They showed toughness by rallying to put themselves within a touchdown of taking the lead in the fourth quarter.
But they were always fighting uphill.
They were always playing with a thin margin for error.
They were never able to string enough good plays together to make one think they would take control against Football Championship Subdivision’s best defense and a good enough TSU offense.
It was the game that confirmed that the Gamecocks, picked fourth in the OVC, are who we thought they were.
“I really believed this, and I said it in August,” Clarks said. “I felt like every game -- I don’t know if Jacksonville -- but I felt like every game was going to be a dog fight. I really did.
“Looking at our team, who we had coming back, and it’s really proven that way.”
JSU heads into an open date with a 5-2 record after a 4-0 start. The Gamecocks are 1-2 in the OVC.
Among their OVC losses, both at home, was an overtime game they dominated statistically against Murray State.
JSU wouldn’t dominate TSU on Burgess-Snow Field on Saturday, statistically or otherwise, and Clark knew it. He showed it by springing red pants on the Gamecocks, to give them any extra motivational jolt they could get from a “red out.”
He showed that he knew his offense needed something extra, running a fake field goal and a gadget, lateral-pass play. Neither worked.
Everything would come hard against a TSU defense that’s good enough to play its base alignment most of the game. They have the athletes to read and react without taking risks to force the issue.
One might get a drive going between the 20-yard lines, but it’s hard to finish. JSU’s two first-quarter incursions ended in field goals.
JSU’s one venture over the goal line was set up by backup quarterback Eli Jenkins’ 76-yard pass to Markis Merrill late in the third quarter. The Gamecocks’ 91-yard drive took all of 36 seconds.
Offenses might get a first down or two against TSU’s defense, but that first-down failure is coming. The play that puts an offense behind the down-and-distance chains is never far away.
A JSU team that led the OVC in rushing offense through six games managed 21 rushing yards against TSU.
What JSU might have exploited in the passing game went out the window when starting quarterback Max Shortell sustained an unspecified knee injury in the third quarter.
Meanwhile, Tennessee State was good enough offensively, with running back Tim Broughton bursting through a gashed JSU front for big runs. Meanwhile, quarterback Michael German delivered completions with charging JSU defenders a half step away from him.
TSU (6-1, 3-0) is an elite OVC team this year, and the Tigers’ Oct. 26 showdown with league favorite Eastern Illinois would be fun to watch.
JSU could easily be 6-1 but is not an elite OVC team and wasn’t, even before Shortell limped out of Saturday’s game and Merrill left on a stretcher, with an apparent hip injury.
Barring mounting injuries, the Gamecocks should win more OVC games than they lose. They might beat somebody they shouldn’t.
They have that chance because they’ll compete. That much has been established in Clark’s first year.
But in 2013, there’s a gap between JSU and the OVCs elite. Saturday’s game revealed that much.
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star.