- Time and date: Thursday, September 28 at 8:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPNU
- Location: Elliott T. Bowers Stadium — Huntsville, TX
- Spread: Jacksonville State (-6.5)
- Over/under: 36.5
- All-time series: Sam Houston leads, 6-5
- Last meeting: Sam Houston 42, Jacksonville State 7 — October 23, 2021
- Current streak: Sam Houston, 1 (2021)
Setting the scene
The two FBS newcomers share one stage Thursday night. And they get a national spotlight on ESPNU, which was not familiar territory for the teams when competing at the FCS level.
The FCS-to-FBS transitions are faring quite differently for Jacksonville State (3-1, 1-0 CUSA) and Sam Houston (0-3, 0-0 CUSA). The Gamecocks collected their second win over FBS competition last Saturday and recoded one of five instances of an FBS shutout, blanking Eastern Michigan, 21-0. The Bearkats have endured a much more challenging schedule, however, facing the likes of BYU, Air Force, and Houston. While Sam Houston has shown signs of defensive success like Jacksonville State, the team’s scoring total for the year is at a mere 10 points.
The expectations are for a low-scoring bout in Huntsville, TX on Thursday night in the first-ever CUSA matchup at Bowers Stadium.
Jacksonville State Gamecocks outlook
Jacksonville State is already 1-0 in CUSA play after sliding past UTEP in Week 0, and Thursday presents the Gamecocks an opportunity at a 2-0 record — despite being ineligible for the CUSA Championship Game due to the transition from the FCS level.
The Gamecocks’ promising start to FBS membership has primarily been driven by sharp defensive play. Rich Rodriguez’s team currently ranks 11th in the nation in fewest points allowed per game at 11.8, and it pulled out an impressive 21-0 shutout over Eastern Michigan left to help that metric. And honestly, the 21-0 score could have been more lopsided as the Eagles produced a goal line stand in the early fourth quarter and Jacksonville State missed a 40-yard field goal. But the Gamecocks’ defense played a near-perfect game, never allowing Eastern Michigan to set up shop inside the 30-yard line and only permitting the Eagles to cross midfield twice.
That defense will be the element which dictates how Thursday’s game unfolds. The unit is currently excelling in both facets of the game, limiting opponents to 172 passing yards per game (21st in FBS) and 2.7 yards per rush, which ranks top 20 nationally. With defensive end Chris Hardie playing a significant role, Jacksonville State sports one of the better pass rushes in the country with 3.5 sacks per contest. Many hats typically flock to the ball around the line of scrimmage, and the pressure they generate on opposing quarterbacks is the reason for their stellar passing defense.
The rush and coverage have formed a mutualistic relationship, one that has led seven different defenders to corralling an interception this year. Cornerback Derek Carter is the team leader in pass deflections and strong safety Kolbi Fuqua ranks supreme on the Gamecock defense in tackles, and they’re the premier names to watch in the secondary.
The offensive production hasn’t nearly matched the defensive dominance, producing just 18 points per game in three matchups against FBS competition this year. Jacksonville State is still shuffling quarterbacks on a week-to-week basis. Incumbent starter Zion Webb began the season as No. 1 on the depth chart, but Nebraska transfer Logan Smothers took over the primary QB duties Week 2. After splitting the job in the Week 3 loss to Coastal Carolina, Smothers proceeded to handle every snap last Saturday against Eastern Michigan. He completed 9-of-19 passes in that start, but made a mark with his mobility, rushing for 118 yards and a touchdown in the win.
Neither quarterback has thrown a pick this year, and both might see playing time in Huntsville. But Smothers likely gets the start with the higher season completion percent of 63 and his impressive ability to extend plays with his legs.
Passing doesn’t hold as much stake in this offense as Jacksonville State predominantly runs the ball. Only Air Force and Army churn out more rushing attempts per game than Rodriguez’s Gamecocks, which tote the rock an average of 50 times each outing. Malik Jackson is the feature back, gunning for the century mark in two of his four games thus far, while Ron Wiggins plays a supporting role. With a litany of bodies available in the backfield, including at quarterback, Jacksonville State will ground the ball until Sam Houston has a viable solution.
Sam Houston Bearkats outlook
Sam Houston is one of five winless teams in the country, but the Bearkats endured a very brutal schedule to launch FBS membership. They went on the road to battle a pair of Big 12 teams in BYU and Houston, and their neutral site game at NRG Stadium was against a 4-0 Air Force team which could be bound for the New Year’s Six. But Sam Houston played very respectably against its two Mountain Time Zone opponents, falling to BYU 14-0 and Air Force 13-3 by means of a relentless defense.
Like Jacksonville State, defense is the trademark of this Sam Houston team. The unit saw its roughest performance against Houston, allowing 38 to the Cougars last Saturday night, but they’ve been in excellent shape more often than not. Although Air Force’s proclivity to run may skew the numbers, Sam Houston is 19th nationally in passing defense, but considering the Bearkats encounter the 47th most passing attempts per game, it’s clear they’re succeeding at countering the aerial attack — especially explosive plays. Containing the run has been a bit rougher for the FBS newcomer, surrendering 181 yards per game on 4.2 yards per carry — allowing their first 100-yard runner of the season against Houston.
Sam Houston did the bulk of its defensive success without relying on turnovers. The Bearkats have yet to intercept a pass this year, and they’ve only recovered one fumble, so that’s one area of improvement which could progress an already-promising unit. That starts with establishing a pass rush, and that element has been absent from the Bearkats thus far with only two sacks on the season. But middle linebacker Trevor Williams has been a sensational tackler in the heart of the defense, accruing 38 tackles through three contests and tying for the team-lead with 2.0 tackles for loss.
On offense, Sam Houston is similar to Jacksonville State by already testing two quarterbacks in the early portion of the season. Keegan Shoemaker earned the first two starts, but now it appears Grant Gunnell is bound for second consecutive start after earning the nod against Houston. Gunnell is on his fourth FBS stop, notably serving as Arizona’s No. 1 quarterback for a portion of the 2019 season. He set the new team record for completion percentage this season with a 14-of-22 performance against the Cougars, firing for 100 yards and one interception, which head coach K.C. Keeler attributed to the intended receiver in his postgame press conference.
Sam Houston will try to establish a greater aerial presence under Gunnell’s direction, as nothing has gone right in the run game this year. The Bearkats are dead last nationally in rushing yards per game at 42.0, picking up just 1.6 yards per attempt. And it’s not exactly an onslaught of sacks keeping that rushing average low, but rather, merely getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage. The line of scrimmage battle has not been kind to Sam Houston thus far, as all three opponents wound up with more sacks and tackles for loss than the Bearkats through the first quarter of their regular season schedule.
There’s a reason the under is 36.5. Both teams are delivering on the defensive end while leaving more to be desired in the scoring department. But so far, Jacksonville State showcases the more successful offense, while Sam Houston has been limited to 10 total points this season and 16 three-and-outs.
Sam Houston may be difficult to get a read on for this matchup, considering the level of competition the Bearkats endured their first three outings. But Jacksonville State is pitted against an offense which has only scored one field goal and one touchdown through three games, so simply sustaining the level of play from the first four weeks — and especially the Eastern Michigan — should play out favorably for the Gamecocks on Thursday night.
Prediction: Jacksonville State 20, Sam Houston 7