The Gamecocks proved themselves a good team this weekend by overcoming the urge of overlooking a much weaker opponent an mauled Austin Peay 42-10 for its fifth straight road win this season.
Now, they can take a huge step toward securing some serious postseason consideration by beating Eastern Kentucky (6-3, 4-1) at home Saturday.
A loss, with dominant league-leading Eastern Illinois on the horizon, effectively would knock the Gamecocks (7-2, 3-2 OVC) out of the mix. A win would elevate their status for the expanded 24-team playoff field substantially.
“We don’t want to be scared of being great,” JSU coach Bill Clark said Sunday. “We don’t want to say, ‘No, it’s not big,’ or, ‘No, it’s not important.’ What’s the fun in that? That’s why we play the game, to have these opportunities to do something special.
“We’re excited about the future because we know we have almost everybody back, but for this team, right now, this is our chance. … The possibilities are still there for us. We’re just glad to be here at the end still with a chance.”
Clark wouldn’t go so far as to say it is the biggest game of his young JSU tenure.
“I just want to see where we are,” he said. “What we’ve shown up to this point is we had some guys injured at key positions yet we’ve kept fighting our butts off.”
The Gamecocks have gotten some good news at some positions, but have concerns at others. At this point in the week the coaches know of no one expected to miss the game.
Quarterbacks Max Shortell (knee) and Eli Jenkins (ribs) both are expected to be available. Both could have played Saturday if needed, and Jenkins was being considered, but the tone of the game allowed them another week of rest.
DaMarcus James was the offensive star, rushing for five touchdowns to earn Ohio Valley Conference player of the week honors, but his complements – Troymaine Pope and Miles Jones – both went out early, leaving receiver Telvin Brown to finish the game in the backfield.
EKU won’t be an easy assignment. The Colonels are coming off a 44-0 pasting of Tennessee State, a team that beat the Gamecocks just before their open date and are now themselves in danger of falling out of the playoff hunt.
The Colonels have won the last three meetings, scoring at least 49 points in each game. No one will forget the 2011 debacle in which they rallied from 48-24 down with 7:25 left to beat the Gamecocks 52-48.
“When we came in, this was one of those teams that you … want to compare yourself to,” Clark said. “This is one of top teams in the league and I would say they’ve got the ‘program.’ That’s what we want to do so you can get some sustainability every year.
“Last year’s game was one of the ones you say that was a tough one for our group. That was one of the ones we looked at and said this is a team we’re trying to get to.”
If the Gamecocks get the Colonels this week, it will be a huge feather in their cap for a lot of reasons.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577