After watching it handle his Jacksonville State offense for 60 minutes Saturday he grew to appreciate it even more.
Perception met with reality at JSU’s homecoming and it wasn’t a good merger for the Gamecocks.
TSU smothered their usually powerful running game and didn’t give them much else after starting quarterback Max Shortell left with a knee injury, strapping them with a 31-15 loss that puts their hopes of winning a conference championship in Clark’s first year in jeopardy.
“Their night, not ours -- give them credit,” Clark said. “Sometimes those O’s and X’s are bigger than the other side, or better than the other side, and tonight they were.
“They’re good. They really are.”
Coming into the game, 23rd-ranked TSU (6-1, 3-0 Ohio Valley Conference) had been holding opponents to average of 104.8 yards below their total offense, 49.6 yards below their rushing average and 11.4 points below their scoring average. The 24th-ranked Gamecocks (5-2, 1-2) fell right in line.
JSU, which had been averaging 466 yards a game, had only 292 yards of offense and only 21 net rushing yards – 220 yards below its season average.
The 21 yards on 34 carries were the fewest JSU had in a game since mustering only 8 yards in a 1998 loss to Troy State.
DaMarcus James, who had rushed for three touchdowns in each of the last three games and more than 180 yards in each of the last two, was held to 15 yards on 10 carries, but he did score JSU’s lone touchdown. Troymaine Pope was the Gamecocks’ leading rusher with 22 yards on 10 carries.
TSU, meanwhile, rushed for 215 yards as a team. Tim Broughton had for 190 on 26 carries.
“They outplayed us, nothing more to be said,” receiver Josh Barge said. “They just outplayed us.”
The Gamecocks’ troubles against TSU’s defense started early. Twice in the first quarter they broke into the red zone, but both times came away with only Griffin Thomas field goals. The Tigers trumped those with the first of three Michael German touchdown passes and four TSU had in the game.
“Any time you’re kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, it’s got a chance to come back and haunt you,” Clark said.
It did. German threw two more touchdown passes in the second quarter and the Tigers had a 21-6 lead at the half.
The Gamecocks did have success through the air, especially early, but lost that edge when Shortell left with what was described as a twisted right knee after taking a 3-yard loss to end the opening drive of the second half. He had completed 14 of 24 passes for 131 yards by the time he left.
“It’s frustrating because we knew those throws were there,” Clark said. “That was our guy to take advantage of that and we lost that.”
The Gamecocks had 140 passing yards from the other four players who threw passes. Some of it came on a couple trick plays that didn’t work and a lot of it – 76 yards worth – came on a pass to Markis Merrill that resulted in the sophomore receiver being carted from the field with a hip injury.
“I didn’t go down there,” backup quarterback Eli Jenkins said. “It seems like every time I throw him the ball he gets hurt, so I just thought it was my fault again.”
Jenkins threw the pass on which Merrill got decked in the North Alabama game. Although a scary play at the time, Merrill played the next week.
The prognosis on both injured players was not immediately certain, but Clark said “it’s going to be a big deal to find out” the extent of Shortell’s injury. The Gamecocks do have an open date this week.
The Gamecocks seemed to draw some inspiration from Merrill’s injury. James scored from 2 yards out on the next play, then on the first play of the fourth quarter Chris Landrum and Dustin Gayton chased down German for a 15-yard loss, fumble and safety to make it 21-15.
It was one of four sacks the Gamecocks recorded in the game. Caleb Lawrence had two of them.
The points off the safety were as close as JSU would get. They got nothing with the possession off the resulting free kick, and Jamin Godfrey kicked a 50-yard field goal to extend TSU’s lead.
The Gamecocks lost whatever momentum they had left when Kyle West was intercepted on the ensuing possession. Freshman quarterback Ronald Butler converted the turnover into points with a 10-yard touchdown pass with 6:42 to play.
“We tried to come out and get it for him (Merrill), but we came up short,” Jenkins said.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.