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– Tennessee State brought the No. 1-ranked
overall defense among Football Championship Subdivision teams to Burgess-Snow
Field on Saturday for a key Ohio Valley Conference showdown.
The Tigers proved worthy of the ranking and spoiled Homecoming for Jacksonville State and most of the crowd of 19,092, holding the Gamecocks 174 yards below their season average to claim a 31-15 OVC win.
Jacksonville State, ranked No. 24 in both FCS Top 25 polls, fell to 5-2 and 1-2.
The Gamecocks, averaging 243.3 rushing yards through their first six games, finished with only 21 on 34 rushes against what Jacksonville State coach Bill Clark termed "by far the most physical team we've played this year."
The 21 yards was JSU's lowest rushing output in 15 years.
"This was one of those games we knew was going to be a tough, hard-fought game," Clark said in his postgame press conference. "We knew we were going to have to play very well. Obviously we didn't block them."
"They're pretty good," said quarterback Eli Jenkins, who played much of the second half after starter Max Shortell was injured. "We missed a couple of things here and there – a couple of blocks, a couple of reads, cuts and stuff.
"If we put all that together, we would have been able to run the ball."
Jacksonville State drove inside the Tigers 30 on its first three possessions but came away with only six points.
No. 23 Tennessee State (6-1, 3-0) went three-and-out on its first drive of the day and the Gamecocks took over at the JSU 31.
Jacksonville State's Troymaine Pope had a 21-yard run and a personal foul penalty against the Tigers after the play moved the ball to TSU's 16. But the next three plays failed to gain yardage and Griffin Thomas came in to kick a 33-yard field goal to give the Gamecocks a 3-0 lead with 10:19 to go in the first.
The Gamecocks drove inside the TSU 30 on their next possession but couldn't increase the lead.
Facing fourth-and-7 from the 29, Thomas lined up for an apparent field goal attempt that instead turned out to be a fake. Tennessee State's defense, however, stopped the pass from Dalton Screws to Spence Goffigan for no yardage in and the Tigers took over.
Tennessee State took advantage and drove 71 yards in six plays. Quarterback Michael German completed the drive with a 5-yard scoring pass to A.C. Leonard and Jamin Godfrey's extra point gave the Tigers a 7-3 lead they never relinquished.
Thomas' second field goal, a 26-yarder with 14 seconds remaining, cut JSU's deficit to 7-6. The Gamecocks rolled up 128 yards in the first quarter and controlled the time of possession, 9:37 to 5:23.
"We started well, especially offensively," said Clark. "Anytime you are kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, it has a chance to come back and haunt you."
Tennessee State began to assert itself in the second quarter and built a 21-6 lead by halftime.
German threw two second-quarter touchdowns – a 13-yarder to Wesley Samuels and 7-yarder to Weldon Garlington. Godfrey's second PAT of the quarter gave TSU a 15-point cushion at the break.
Shortell left the game with an injury in the third quarter.
But the Gamecocks avoided falling further behind when Harris Gaston rushed through to block Godfrey's 40-yard field goal try and Rashod Byers recovered at the 18.
With his team pinned at the 9 late in the third quarter, Jenkins found a wide-open Markis Merrill in front of the Gamecocks' sideline. The sophomore receiver from St. Augustine, Fla., was dragged down from behind just before reaching the end zone and was injured on the play.
Merrill was taken from the field via ambulance, , prompting a lengthy delay.
Following the stoppage DeMarcus James took a direct snap from center and ran two yards for the touchdown with 36 seconds left in the third. Thomas' PAT drew the Gamecocks to within 21-13.
The momentum appeared to have swung in Jacksonville State's favor when German fumbled out of the back of the end zone for a safety on the first play of the fourth quarter to make it 21-15.
TSU, though, got Godfrey 50-yard field goal to make it 24-15 with 10:13 and put the game out of reach with a 10-yard TD pass from Ronald Butler to Samuels.
The Tigers' final score was set up by an interception of JSU reserve quarterback Kyle West.
Jacksonville State has an open date next Saturday and returns to action on Oct. 26 with a road game at Tennessee Tech. Kickoff is at 1:30 p.m.