The FCS to FBS transition isn’t always easy. But Rich Rodriguez and Jacksonville State are making it look that way.
Forty-one yards stood between Jacksonville State and undoubtedly its biggest victory since officially joining the FBS ranks this summer. Snap, good. Hold, good. Alen Karajic planted his foot, booted the ball, and then he ate it. The 6’5” junior kicker slipped and lost his balance, causing him to watch his all-important kick while sitting down on the grass at Burgess-Snow Field at JSU Stadium. But when Karajic lifted himself off the ground, the game clock expired and celebration ensued in Jacksonville, AL. His 41-yard attempt snuck through the goalpost, providing Jacksonville State with a 20-17 upset win over preseason CUSA favorite Western Kentucky.
Jacksonville State is establishing itself as the ultimate come-from-behind team. For the third time in four weeks, the Gamecocks erased a double-digit deficit to emerge triumphant when the final whistle blew. Jacksonville State previously climbed out of 21-7 and 23-7 holes at Sam Houston and Middle Tennessee, respectively, and Tuesday night at home, the Gamecocks shook off a 17-7 disadvantage against the Hilltoppers. They scored 13 unanswered points, fueled by a 26-yard touchdown run by Anwar Lewis with 4:40 remaining to knot the score at 17-17.
But offense wasn’t the focal point in Jacksonville State’s landmark victory. This was a defensive struggle through and through, and the Gamecocks mucked up the game to stifle a WKU team averaging 32 points per game while showcasing a top 25 passing offense. WKU was held scoreless past the 8:36 mark of the second quarter, punting on seven of its eight last possessions — with three three-and-outs and no drive spanning more than 35 yards.
This has been an ongoing theme for the Hilltoppers, which were shut out in the second half for their second game in a row after nearly squandering a 35-7 halftime lead to Louisiana Tech last outing. In WKU’s last two second halves, zero collective points have been scored. And on 12 full possessions, they’ve punted 10 times and turned it over on downs twice. And what’s most jarring — they haven’t crossed the opponent’s 45-yard line once in their last two second halves. So it’s an understatement to declare second half offense has been quite the heel for the Hilltoppers.
The turnover on downs was especially critical as WKU operated with a 17-10 lead when running back Markese Stepp was stuffed on a 4th and short by Jacksonville State outside linebacker Quae Drake at midfield. That was the Hilltoppers’ most productive drive of the second half — one which allowed the Gamecocks to win the field position battle for the remainder of the contest.
Jacksonville State managed to win in spite of losing the turnover battle, 2-1. The Gamecocks offense out-gained WKU quite significantly, 487-339, led by quarterback Zion Webb. His status was uncertain after suffering an injury last week, but Webb returned to the lineup to attain 218 passing yards and a game-high 149 rushing yards for Rodriguez’s ground-based offense. Lewis assisted with 85 yards and the game-tying touchdown on 17 attempts. But perhaps the offensive box score statistic which benefited the Gamecocks the most was limiting WKU star receiver Malachi Corley to 47 receiving yards on six catches — one game after Corley shredded Louisiana Tech with 207 yards and three touchdowns. Cornerback Derek Carter helped patrol the defensive backfield, deflecting three passes and landing a team-best eight tackles in the upset win.
Jacksonville State (6-2, 4-1 CUSA) may not be bowl eligible due to penalties assessed to teams making the jump from the FCS to FBS. But there is a loophole which can send the Gamecocks bowling, if the minimum threshold of 6-win teams is not met come the first Sunday of December. Still, it’s been a remarkable ride for Rodriguez and the Gamecocks which attained their fifth win over FBS competition this season, positioning themselves in second place in the CUSA standings. However, they are not eligible for the conference championship game, although they can strongly impact the race.
And strongly impact the race, they did. WKU (4-3, 2-1 CUSA) dropped its first conference matchup of the season, slipping to a tie with New Mexico State for third place in the league standings. WKU can’t stay down for long, as the Hilltoppers are one week away from their most important contest of the season — a Tuesday matchup in Bowling Green, KY against undefeated Liberty, which could be a sneak preview of December’s CUSA Championship Game.