JSU faces stout test from Tennessee State's No. 1-ranked defense
by Al Muskewitz
amuskewitz@annistonstar.com
Oct 08, 2013 | 1917 views |  0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jacksonville State wide receiver Markis Merrill (1) fights off Tennessee-Martin defensive back Leon Carlton III after a long pass reception. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
Jacksonville State wide receiver Markis Merrill (1) fights off Tennessee-Martin defensive back Leon Carlton III after a long pass reception. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
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JACKSONVILLE – Playing a conference team for homecoming is worrisome enough. Playing one that is tops in the country in arguably the most important aspect of the game isn’t exactly a formula to keep the alums happy.

That is, of course, unless you find a way to take it out of the equation.

If newly ranked Jacksonville State can find a way to undermine Tennessee State’s top-rated defense Saturday, it would be a huge pat on the back to an offense that has been gaining confidence steadily.

It won’t be easy, though. The Tigers rank No. 1 in the FCS in total defense -- allowing fewer than 250 yards a game – No. 1 in pass efficiency defense (with 10 interceptions), No. 2 in passing yardage allowed and No. 3 in scoring defense.

“We’d better be ready,” JSU head coach Bill Clark said. “To know you’re playing the No. 1 group in the country, that’s daunting, but it should be a challenge we should embrace and be excited about.”

Don’t think running it on No. 23 TSU (5-1, 2-0) is easy, either. The Tigers may be ranked only 29th nationally in rushing defense, but they’re only giving up an average of 129 yards a game on the ground for the year.

“The big thing is they’re not giving up but 248 yards a game. That’s pretty low,” Gamecocks offensive coordinator John Grass said.

No one can escape. The Tigers have held each of their last five opponents at least 50 total yards below their season average at the time they’ve played their game. They held Florida A&M 154 yards below its average and Central State 128 under its average.

They held the Rattlers to only 22 rushing yards – 173 yards below its average – and run-heavy Southeast Missouri to 101 yards below its passing average. SEMO got more than half its rushing yards in the game on one 99-yard carry in the fourth quarter. Tennessee State hasn't given up more than 21 points in any game this season.

For the year, the Tigers have held opponents 104.8 yards and 11.4 points below their season average at the time they played their games. If that holds this week, the Gamecocks (5-1, 1-1) stands to get 361 yards and 22 points.

“They’re taking away what people do well, which to me is the mark of a good defense,” Clark said.

It’s easy to see where it comes from, because the Tigers have all the ingredients. They have linemen with size and speed, linebackers who are all over the field and defensive backs with size.

Cornerback Stephen Godbolt III is the OVC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year and the only player from the conference on the updated Buck Buchanan Award watch list. Safeties David VanDyke and Daniel Fitzpatrick are 1-2 in the OVC in interceptions with seven between them.

Tigers coach Rod Reed said the defense “deserves” its designation as No. 1 for all it has gone through getting to this point, but he’s not about to take anything for granted.

“When you play hard, good things happen for you,” he said. “It’s good they are receiving some fruits for their hard labor. We just need to continue to play great defense."

If you want to find a “weakness” it might be the Tigers’ 29th-ranked rushing defense, but even that’s still pretty good – 126.7 yards a game. That might lend itself to the idea of athletic quarterback Eli Jenkins leading the JSU offense this week, but the Gamecocks go into every game looking to play both quarterbacks.

Max Shortell is a pocket passer, throwing for more than 200 yards in each of his last three games since returning from a muscle strain that kept him out of the North Alabama game. But he entertained his teammates and demonstrated his ability to run with a crucial fourth-quarter 19-yard scramble on fourth-and-seven last week at Tennessee-Martin.

And don't think of Jenkins as just a runner. He was 5-for-5 passing before hurting his hand against at Georgia State and 25 of 38 for the year.

“I think we’ve got to be balanced in our plan and … we’ve just got to execute,” Grass said. “They make you execute and rely on you beating yourself.”

The Gamecocks are still looking to play their best game offensively, but they showed in the Jacksonville game how strong they can be offensively when they’re reasonably sharp. They produced 568 yards of offense with no offensive penalties, although they did have two interceptions.

Even with four turnovers and two missed field goals, they had 652 yards of offense against Murray State, but the Racers aren’t anywhere close to TSU defensively.

“The last couple weeks we gained a lot of confidence,” Shortell said. “If you look at the tape we still miss plays all up and down the field. Everybody continually makes mistakes. We just have to fine tune those mistakes, be conscious of what stops drives and what’s keeping us from really scoring a lot of points."

Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.

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