Maybe better than good for a team with a new head coach – a first-year college head coach -- who took the job without a quarterback and a defense that needed a major overhaul.
Through all that, the Gamecocks (10-3) have recorded double-figure wins for the first time since moving to Division I, extended themselves into the second round of the FCS playoffs and set several records along the way.
They’ll be looking to keep it going Saturday when they play No. 6 national seed McNeese State (10-2) in Lake Charles, La.
“Other than winning the conference and winning every game … it would be hard to have a better year than what we’ve had from the buy-in,” Gamecocks coach Bill Clark said. “If (the NCAA selection committee) hadn’t chosen us to be in, we’d have still had the buy-in. We’d have still had the work, still had the kids doing all the things we’ve asked them to do.
“I’m sure there have been some things not exactly right, but for the most part it’s been a great year.”
It’s not as if Clark had to come in and develop a culture of winning. He took over a program that had 10 straight winning seasons, but had made only one playoff appearance since 2004 and never won a postseason game since winning the 1992 Division II national championship.
Clark got hired at the height of the recruiting season, so he had little time to assemble a staff of coaches and get them out on the road to protect previous commitments and land new ones.
Any coaching change brings uncertainty and the players at first weren’t sure what to make of the situation.
“Some of the seniors were talking. We were all kinds of nervous,” senior linebacker Robert Gray said. “I know Coach Clark is a high school guy too, but he’s been in college for the past few years. We thought they were going to bring in a high school coach just to experiment with us – use our class as an experiment – and we were kind of worried about that.
“But Coach Clark and his staff came in and did a great job. I’m not saying we were mediocre – we had a lot of talent on our team -- but he probably took another 6-5 team and got nine games out of us. That’s because he had us buy into what they were doing, working out hard and stuff like that.”
The only real hiccup the Gamecocks have had during the year was an overtime loss to Murray State in which they gave up a chance to win in regulation and got beat by a gutsy 2-point conversion in extra time.
They lost to Tennessee State at homecoming as a team in desperate need of an open date and were handled by league-champion Eastern Illinois.
But to their credit, they responded in a big way after each loss. They bounced back from the Murray State game to beat Tennessee-Martin on the road in a game Clark said really had him worried. They came out of the TSU loss and their open date with three straight wins. The loss to EIU ended that run, but they rebounded again by beating Southeast Missouri to preserve their postseason hopes and routed Samford last week in their playoff opener.
“Once everybody bought in to what Coach Clark and the rest of the staff was doing, I think everybody felt we could win,” quarterback Eli Jenkins said. “He kept putting in our head we’re going to win if y’all buy in. I think everybody bought in; we won. I think we fell short a couple times, but for the most part we’ve won.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.
SEASON RECORDS SET BY JSU THIS SEASON
Most 100-yard rushers, same game – 4 vs. Jacksonville (tied)
Consecutive overtime games – 3 (tied)
Combined rushing yards – 850 (JSU 440 vs. SEMO 410)
Ohio Valley Conference
Team rushing TDs -- 44
Individual rushing TDs – DaMarcus James, 25
Field goals made – Griffin Thomas, 22 (tied)
Offensive yards – 5,726
All-purpose yards – 7,070
Total points – 473
Touchdowns – 58
Sacks – 39.5
Tackles for loss – 92
TFL Yards – 410
Individual points – DaMarcus James, 150
Individual TDs – DaMarcus James, 25
PAT kicks – Griffin Thomas, 55 (tied)
FG attempts – Griffin Thomas 29 (tied)