Rich Rodriguez and the Jacksonville State Gamecocks are making the transition from FCS to FBS look seamless.
Jacksonville State (5-1, 3-0 CUSA) continued its undefeated trek through the CUSA on the road Wednesday night, flying past Middle Tennessee (1-5, 0-2 CUSA) thanks to 38 unanswered points in the second half. It was the Gamecocks’ second consecutive road comeback of 14 points or greater, showing impressive resolve after roaring back from down 14 in the second half at Sam Houston last week.
The Gamecocks trailed 23-7 at halftime in Murfreesboro, TN, but the new FBS member amplified the intensity on both sides of the ball in the second half, pitching a 31-0 shutout across the final 30 minutes of action. While the offense made a handful of explosive plays, it was primarily the defense which stole the show. In the second half, Jacksonville State recorded four takeaways and scored 21 points from those opportunities.
The Gamecocks started the third quarter strong by securing an interception on the Blue Raiders’ first possession after halftime. But the tide really began to turn in the early fourth quarter when Middle Tennessee tossed its second interception — this time, deep into Gamecock territory. Trailing 31-23, quarterback Nick Vattiato scrambled to the left and his pass was deflected by strong safety Kolbi Fuqua. Defensive end Chris Hardie snagged the ball off the deflection and sprinted 58 yards to the other side of the field. Six plays later, Jacksonville State ballooned its lead to 38-23.
To make the deficit completely insurmountable, the Gamecocks’ defense delivered again with defensive end Curley Young Jr. recovering a fumble off a strip sack and housing it for a 26-yard score. Sandwiched in between those possessions was a turnover on downs where Middle Tennessee mishandled a snap and took a brutal sack on 4th and 5 from the Jacksonville State 14-yard line. That three-drive sequence was the ultimate separator which allowed the Gamecocks to go on their 38-0 run.
Jacksonville State has run a two-quarterback system throughout the year, flipping between Logan Smothers and Zion Webb on a routine basis before eventually settling on the hot hand. While last Thursday was Smothers’ time to shine, this week belonged to Webb. Webb threw for 186 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, but his most notable skillset on display Wednesday night was mobility. The quarterback was the only 100-yard rusher in the contest, picking up 101 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries — spurred by a 61-yard scamper on his first attempt of the game.
Another key offensive contributor in the win was tight end Sean Brown. One week after scoring the game-winning touchdown in overtime, Brown delivered by far his best showing of the season with five receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown. The 6’5”, 250 pound Georgia native broke a slew of tackles throughout the night and he launched the 38-0 scoring run with the first touchdown of the second half.
Before Jacksonville State completely took over, Middle Tennessee’s offense heated up in Klay Thompson-esque fashion in the mid-to-late second quarter. There was a four-minute span where the Blue Raiders rattled off three consecutive touchdowns to secure a 23-7 lead with wide receiver Elijah Metcalf contributing two of those scoring plays. Metcalf gained separation on the defense to corral 71-yard bomb and then added a 19-yard receiving touchdown on Middle Tennessee’s following possession. The speedy sophomore attained the century mark for the first time as a Blue Raider, finishing with 115 yards and two touchdowns in his greatest performance to date.
Justin Olson managed a team-high 124 receiving yards in Vattiato’s monstrous 408-yard passing performance, which tied for the eighth-best showing in program history. But the 16-point halftime lead steadily evaporated thanks to losing the turnover battle 4-0 in the second half. By losing its fifth matchup of the season, Middle Tennessee ties its total in the loss column from 2022 and remains in search of its first FBS win of 2023. Rick Stockstill’s team will look to do that in Murfreesboro next Tuesday when Louisiana Tech pays a visit.
Jacksonville State is now rolling with four consecutive victories. The Gamecocks are ineligible from the CUSA Championship Game and bowl season due to penalties assessed to teams transitioning to the FBS, but they sit atop the CUSA standings with an unblemished 3-0 conference record. Jacksonville State returns home next Tuesday for its toughest contest yet — a battle against undefeated Liberty.