The Gamecocks’ 31-10 second-round playoff win at No. 6 McNeese State on Saturday was only the most recent example of the rewards that come from starting fast.
They scored on their first offensive play of the game and jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead.
Since suffering their last loss — built on a 35-point first quarter by Eastern Illinois — the Gamecocks (11-3) have won three in a row and outscored their opponents 87-6 in the first half.
In fact, they have outscored the six teams they’ve beaten since their open date 179-19 in the first two quarters.
“I really do think it comes back to confidence,” JSU coach Bill Clark said. “We’re attacking more on offense now and I think that’s just confidence in the system.
“I think they all understand how important starting fast is just for our overall team, but offensively we are just attacking the opponent better instead of waiting for something to happen.”
The Gamecocks have been particularly aggressive out of the gate in the playoffs. In a first-round rout of Samford, they delighted the home crowd by running out to a 38-0 halftime lead then extended it with a touchdown on the first play of the third quarter. They outgained the Bulldogs 361 yards to 17 in the first half, holding them to zero yards in the second quarter.
On Saturday in Lake Charles, they outgained one of the nation’s strongest offenses 211 yards to 75 in the first half and without a third-down conversion in nine tries. In their final regular season game, the Gamecocks held a 366-175 yardage edge on Southeast Missouri and 28-6 lead in the first half.
“We just understand we have to start fast,” quarterback Eli Jenkins said. “We play better when we started fast, therefore we take pride in starting fast.”
Another element that shouldn’t be overlooked in the Gamecocks’ drive into Saturday’s quarterfinal game at No. 3 Eastern Washington (11-2) is their ability to be road warriors.
They are 6-1 on the road this season, a run that bodes well for their title hopes since they’ll stay on the road for the remainder of the playoffs as long as they’re paired against a seeded team. Road teams are 6-10 through this year’s first two rounds.
“If we’re going to do it, that’s what we’re going to have to do,” Clark said. “One of the things we’ve embraced this year is the idea of playing for each other. If you watched the sideline during the game, all 60 of our guys and the coaches were into it.
“You expect the coaches to be, but when your players are hanging on every play and pulling for those guys on the field, that’s what you want. And it needs to happen on the road when it’s you against the world.”
Each of the last five FCS national champions enjoyed success on the road during the season, but none of the previous four had to play a playoff game on the road. You have to go all the way back to Richmond in 2008 to find a team that won a road playoff game en route to the title.
The Spiders won two that year – at Appalachian State and Northern Iowa – before beating Montana in Chattanooga for the crown.
“I think it tells a lot about who we are and we’ve made a big deal about it,” Clark said of the Gamecocks’ road success.” A lot of things go into (playing on the road); do they affect you or do you just play? It’s ball. You’ve got to go play and when you go on the road you’ve got to pull together.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.