Twice this season the Gamecocks have taken it on the chin and both times they’ve bounced back to win convincingly in their next start.
If they can do it again Saturday against Southeast Missouri on the heels of a crushing 52-14 loss to Eastern Illinois, it might just be enough to extend the season for 14 seniors who may be playing their final game in a JSU uniform. It will certainly send them out feeling a little better about themselves if the Gamecocks (8-3, 4-3 Ohio Valley Conference) don’t make the playoffs.
“Thank God we have another chance to play,” Clark said Monday. “It’s our Super Bowl this week — that’s how we’re looking at it.
“We’ve just got to put that (EIU loss) behind us. That’s sometimes tough to do, but our guys have been really good about bouncing back from the two losses we had previous, so I expect nothing really any different from them.”
The first time the Gamecocks had their character tested, they lost their OVC opener to Murray State in overtime. They bounced back to beat Tennessee-Martin 41-27 on the road in a game Clark said made him “as nervous as I’ve been for a game” as a coach.
“There were so many question marks about our team, even though we had found a way to win four going into conference play,” he said. “To come out and play as good as they did and fight, that told me a lot about who we are.”
The next time, they lost to Tennessee State at homecoming, a loss that took them out of the conference title race. But they came out of the ensuing open date to convincingly win their next three games, capped by a thorough 68-10 thrashing of Eastern Kentucky.
It’s a stark contrast to the way JSU teams came back from losses during the final years of former coach Jack Crowe’s tenure.
In 2010, the week after a 49-37 loss to Eastern Kentucky stopped their 8-0 start and denied them a chance to go to No. 1, they needed a last-minute touchdown to beat the best Southeast Missouri team in years. Then they lost their last two games, including their playoff opener.
In 2011, they lost to Kentucky, then dropped two straight conference games at home before once again stopping the bleeding against SEMO.
They never lost two in a row last year, but they never really had an easy time the week after a loss. Doormat Austin Peay even had them down 14-0 before they rallied to secure the win that guaranteed them a winning season.
Senior left guard Taylor Johnstone said the players’ approach to the practice week after each loss this year hasn’t been any different than it has been going into the week before. Asked Monday if there was one element that underscored their ability to bounce back, senior tight end Gavin Ellis pointed to the occupant of the seat immediately to his right.
“This guy right here,” he said, pointing to Clark. “There’s a different philosophy of Coach Crowe than Coach Clark after a loss, I’d say.
“I feel like after we lost last year it was put on full pads and go out there and (get after it). Coach Clark knows how to win. He knows how to lose, too — how to take a loss, how to handle it.”
Last week, the Gamecocks were overwhelmed by Eastern Illinois early in a game and immediately after it ended it left the seniors with an empty feeling.
“We just saw our hopes and dreams go down the hole,” Johnstone said.
But the players said Clark had the same message for them after the game as he has each of the previous two losses: Don’t forget how bad this hurts, but move on.
Ellis said it was “the best thing you can tell a team” after a loss like that.
“Nobody likes to lose, especially like we did on Saturday,” Johnstone said. “It’s embarrassing. I wouldn’t expect anything less than everybody to be fired up today. I know the coaches will be riding us today hard. This might be our last week’ and we’re going to try our best to come out with another W.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.