By Carl Prather| November 16, 2014 at 3:42 AM CST - Updated July 10 at 7:06 AM
It's time to start measuring for at least one championship ring.
Third-ranked Jacksonville State clinched its fourth Ohio Valley Conference football crown Saturday afternoon with a gritty 27-20 victory over Eastern Illinois before a crowd of 14,925 at Burgess-Snow Field.
Eli Jenkins passed for a career-best 288 yards as the Gamecocks (9-1, 7-0 OVC) reeled off their ninth straight win, their second-longest winning streak since moving to Division I in 1993. JSU earned the OVC's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs regardless of the outcome of next week's regular-season finale at Southeast Missouri State.
A win over SEMO will likely earn the Gamecocks a first-round bye.
"These guys are not ready to be through playing," said first-year head coach John Grass. "Hopefully we'll have a good week this week and go on the road and beat a good SEMO team and make sure we get one of the top four seeds and get to play at home."
Jacksonville State never trailed against the Panthers (5-6, 5-2). The Gamecocks have not been behind in a game since Oct. 11, when they trailed Tennessee State 3-0 early in the first quarter.
Josh Barge had eight catches for 153 yards and one touchdown while Ruben Gonzalez caught seven passes for 113 yards. It marked the first time since 2001 that Jacksonville State had a pair of 100-yard receivers in a game.
"We knew we were going to have to throw it coming in," said Grass. "Barge had his normal day, Eli played really, really well and it was good to see Ruben get going. He showed tonight what we thought he could do the whole season."
Eastern Illinois - the two-time defending OVC champions - refused to relinquish its title without a fight.
Trailing 20-7 at halftime, the Panthers dominated the third quarter and cut the deficit to three, 20-17, on Taylor Duncan's 2-yard run at the 5:59 mark.
The spark the Gamecocks badly needed came from redshirt freshman Darius Jackson early in the fourth quarter.
Eastern Illinois took over after a missed JSU field goal with momentum on its side. That quickly turned when Jackson stepped in front of a pass by Panthers quarterback Jalen Whitlow and raced 27 yards untouched to the end zone.
"What a play by D.J.," said Grass. "We were struggling a little on offense at that point and to run one in was huge."
Connor Rouleau added the extra point for a 27-17 lead with 11:33 remaining.
Eastern Illinois got to within 27-20 with 8:31 left in the fourth. The Panthers had one last chance to pull even after taking over at their 41 with 2:09 to go, but Jacksonville State's defense forced EIU backup quarterback Andrew Manley into four incomplete passes to preserve the title-clinching victory.
Jenkins connected with Barge on a 59-yard touchdown pass for a 7-0 Jax State lead early in the first quarter.
The second of Rouleau's two field goals increased the Gamecocks' lead to 13-7 with 5:54 remaining.
DaMarcus James had an 8-yard touchdown run with 2:30 left before halftime to extend his team's lead to 20-7.
The touchdown marked the 19th straight game in which James has scored a touchdown against an FCS opponent. He now has 46 rushing touchdowns in his career, just two behind the school record set by David Gulledge from 1987-90.
James ran for 112 yards on 26 carries.
Kickoff in Cape Girardeau, Mo., next Saturday is set for 1 p.m. The 24-team FCS playoff field will be announced on Sunday, Nov. 23 on ESPNU.