JACKSONVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Nothing came easy for almost three quarters against a fired-up Eastern Illinois squad Saturday afternoon.
Jacksonville State, ranked No. 1 in both FCS polls for the first time, got its offense in gear after halftime to defeat the Panthers 24-3 at O'Brien Field, site of the Gamecocks' last Ohio Valley Conference loss in 2013.
JSU's 15th straight conference win establishes a school record.
"This is probably the No. 2 team in the conference," a relieved Jacksonville State head coach John Grass said. "It's a big win. It takes a little bit of pressure off, but we want to win out."
Eli Jenkins connected with Dalton Screws on a 43-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter, and the defense made the lead stand as Jacksonville State (8-1, 6-0) moved one more step closer to an OVC title.
Screws' spectacular touchdown catch in the back of the end zone - the longest reception of his career - broke open what had been a defensive slugfest. Jacksonville State saw its school-record streak of games with a least 400 total yards end at 19 with 385 yards against the Panthers.
Jacksonville State, which entered the game ranked second nationally in total defense at 259.9 yards per game, limited Eastern Illinois (5-4, 5-1) to 239.
The Gamecocks reeled off 21 points in 4 minutes, 12 seconds, the knockout blow coming when linebacker Dawson Wells intercepted a pass by Eastern Illinois quarterback Jalen Whitlow and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown with 11 minutes remaining. Wells' second pick-six in two games extended JSU's lead to 24-3.
Following a scoreless first quarter, Nick Bruno kicked a 23-yard field goal to put Eastern Illinois ahead 3-0 at the 14:12 mark in the second quarter to complete a 16-play, 91-yard drive.
Connor Rouleau answered with a 23-yard field goal with 15 seconds left before halftime to pull Jacksonville State even at 3-3. The three points marked the fewest Jacksonville State has scored in any first half since being blanked by Big Ten power Michigan State in the 2014 season opener.
Troymaine Pope ran for a game-high 114 yards on 21 carries. His 10-yard sweep around right end early the fourth quarter capped a 59-yard scoring drive and Rouleau's extra point pushed the lead to 17-3. Pope's 114 yards ties him for the fourth-most career 100-yard performances with eight.
Wells, one of three Gamecocks credited with eight tackles, stepped in front of Whitlow's first down pass seconds later and rumbled 35 yards for a touchdown, just a week after returning an interception 48 yards for a score against Eastern Kentucky.
A win next week against Southeast Missouri will clinch the Gamecocks' second consecutive OVC title. Kickoff at Burgess-Snow Field is set for 1 p.m.
Copyright 2015 WAFF. All rights reserved.