The 20th-ranked Gamecocks, maybe one of the last teams to get in the field, scored their second straight impressive win in the FCS playoffs Saturday, dominating No. 6 national seed McNeese State 31-10 in a performance at Cowboy Stadium deserving of special treatment.
The win, their first over the Cowboys, a former Southland Football League rival, sends the Gamecocks (11-3) to face No. 3 seed Eastern Washington (11-2) Saturday on the unique red turf of the Eagles’ Roos Field.
It will be the farthest West the Gamecocks have ever traveled for a game as a Division I program.
The travel won’t be the only hardship JSU faces. It was 13 degrees at kickoff in the Eagles’ 41-17 rout of South Dakota State.
But if the Gamecocks play like they did against McNeese – especially in the first half of the game – they probably will be able to handle the conditions.
They held the fourth-best scoring offense in the nation to its third lowest point output of the season. They held the 18th best rushing offense to a mere 46 yards on 35 attempts. The rushing total was impacted by the Gamecocks’ school-record 11 sacks for 61 yards in losses.
Individually, DaMarcus James set the school’s single-season rushing record while scoring three touchdowns to extend that record to 28. With 127 yards on 24 carries, James now has 1,431 yards. Kicker Griffin Thomas set single-season school records for field goals and extra points.
“Going into any game against a really good opponent, you never really feel like you’re going to come out and play as well as we did,” JSU coach Bill Clark said. “Obviously, our defense played great in the first half just time after time against a great offense.
“I think you’re seeing the real sense of urgency that we’ve wanted all year. We’ve told our guys we’ve got some good players but we’re not good enough to not play with all our hearts and souls and minds, but if we do that we can be pretty good.”
For the Gamecocks the game was a repeat of their first-round blowout of Samford. They hassled a conference offensive player of the year quarterback into a dreadful first half, completely shutting down a top-rated offense and opened a 21-0 lead.
Perhaps it was a good thing the Cowboy Stadium scoreboard was malfunctioning on the JSU side for a time; the McNeese fans couldn’t really tell how badly the Gamecocks were beating their team.
Cowboys quarterback Cody Stroud was the Southland Conference’s top offensive player this season, but the Gamecocks reduced him to ordinary.
Stroud had been intercepted only five times in 330 pass attempts during the season and sacked 14, but the Gamecocks picked him off twice and sacked him a school-record-tying seven times in the first half. He finished the game 18 of 40 for 255 yards.
The Gamecocks converted the two picks into touchdowns. Dustin Gayton and Robert Gray had three sacks apiece and Ketrick Wolfe had two.
“They were great defensively,” Stroud said. “They’re one of the best in their conference so we knew they were a really good pass defensive team. Every time we would seem to get something going we would have a negative play.
“That’s not the defense you really want in a long-yard situation. We had to keep ourselves out of those situations and we didn’t do that tonight.”
In the first half, Stroud was only 6 of 12 for 50 yards passing, the Cowboys had only 75 net yards of offense and they were 0-for-9 on third down. They were 1-for-16 in the game.
In these first two weeks of the playoffs, the Gamecocks have outgained their opponents by a whopping 573 yards to 92 and outscored them 59-0 in the first half.
“I think we’re finding out who we are,” Clark said. “Defensively, we had to go in there and decide how hard we had to play. That’s what we’ve been trying to get across to them … I think that’s kind of where we’ve gotten – stingy. We want to be stingy defensively. We don’t want to give up first downs much less touchdowns and when we play like that I think it allows our offense to turn loose and play.”
McNeese has had a history of giving up an early score or a big play to set up an early score this season, and the Gamecocks wasted little time adding to that trend, scoring fewer than two minutes into the game.
The Cowboys (10-3), who haven’t won a playoff game since 2002, sputtered getting their high-powered offense on the game’s opening drive, among other things dropping a wide open pass across midfield and losing 11 yards on a bad shotgun snap.
Wolfe put an end to the Cowboys’ frustration with an interception, and the return was extended by an unsportsmanlike penalty.
On the Gamecocks’ first snap of the game, Eli Jenkins hit Josh Barge on a 19-yard touchdown pass. Jenkins was 7-of-15 passing for 120 yards and rushed for 97 yards.
“The first play we ran today was right on track,” Jenkins said. “It was a bootleg and a pass play. We saw man coverage and just called it out. Touchdown.”
James scored JSU’s other two touchdowns in the half, both 1-yard runs, giving him 27 rushing touchdowns for the year.
His second score came on his fourth straight direct snap after Jenkins was ruled out at the 1 on the first play after Stroud’s second interception.
“The big deal for us was to start fast on the road,” Clark said. “We feel like we’ve got to be better on the road. Everything is more important when you come on the road. A fast start is huge. That’s something we did last week and we continued it this week.”
The Gamecocks added three points in the third quarter. Thomas kicked a 39-yard field goal late in the third quarter to set the JSU and OVC single-season field goal mark (23).
They lost their shutout with 1:15 left in the third quarter when Ryan Rome kicked a 35-yard field goal. The Cowboys finally reached JSU for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter when Stroud hit Ernest Celestie in the back of the end zone with a 10-yard pass on fourth down.
The Gamecocks answered with a 74-yard drive, capped by James’ third touchdown on a 3-yard run. James carried six times for 54 yards in the drive. James has scored at least one touchdown in each of the last 11 games. He has run for at least three six times in that stretch.
“My main goal is to get the first down,” James said. “Once I get the first down everything after that is just have fun with it.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.