Oh, it had the same load as when it left Oxford carrying dreams of moving closer to the FCS national championship game, but was weighed down on the trip home by a profound sense of what-if.
As in what would have been had quarterback Eli Jenkins been able to play the entire game.
The Gamecocks’ most successful season as a Division I football program ended Saturday in a 35-24 loss to No. 3 Eastern Washington in the FCS quarterfinals.
The day was going so well for them, too, until Jenkins, the redshirt freshman who had played so brilliantly the last three weeks, twisted his left knee less than two minutes before halftime.
The Gamecocks (11-4) were in a locked in a scoring fest with one of the top teams in the country at the time, but with Jenkins on the shelf – along with left tackle Adam Wright (leg) and running back DaMarcus James (deep thigh) -- it was all they could do to keep up.
“It’s sickening,” JSU coach Bill Clark said. “I think if you take anybody's starting quarterback (out), they're going to have some problems. That’s just the nature of the business, especially when you got a guy who’s mobile. That’s always the worry, always the risk, when any quarterbacks runs. … I’d just like to have seen what would’ve happened.”
Jenkins was heading for a career day at the time he got hurt. He ran for 118 yards on 14 carries and completed 12 of 14 passes for 127 yards and a score, a passer rating of 185.49. At one point, he completed eight passes in a row.
He got hurt of a 13-yard run that got the Gamecocks out beyond the 35. He tried to get up, then immediately fell back to the iconic red turf of Roos Field. He was the last player to return to the JSU bench after halftime, escorted by three troopers and a trainer, and stood on the sideline trying to maintain his balance on his left toes.
There was no way he could have returned to the game, the Gamecocks said. He was driven to the dressing room after the game in an equipment cart.
“I think I twisted it when I was getting up,” Jenkins said. “The defender was trying to take the ball and I was just trying to keep holding onto it. I just twisted it.
“I felt I was playing pretty good, a few mistakes here and there, but overall pretty good. I felt very comfortable today. That’s all I really needed to be, just comfortable, just relaxed.”
With Jenkins in the game, the Gamecocks were rolling. Clark was “really worried” about getting into a scoring fest with one of the most prolific offenses in the country, but they were right in there punching.
Both teams lost chances to score on their first possessions – the Eagles fumbled into the end zone and the Gamecocks missed a field goal attempt. Then Eagles quarterback Vernon Adams threw a 29-yard scoring pass to Cooper Kupp and it was on.
The Gamecocks matched the score with a 3-yard Telvin Brown gadget pass to Gavin Ellis to tie the game, then denied the Eagles again when Robert Gray intercepted a bad Adams throw in the end zone.
Jenkins threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Johnson to put JSU ahead, but the Eagles matched in six plays later.
James put JSU back on top eight plays later with a 1-yard direct-snap touchdown – his 29th of the season – and Adams retied it with a 41-yard scoring strike to Ashton Clark eight plays after that.
Jenkins’ injury occurred on the next possession, and the way the Eagles saw it -- at least in the mind of EWU linebacker Albert Havili, who delivered the game’s crushing blow -- “we could tell that they were thinking this game is over.”
The Eagles (12-2) took the lead for good on the opening drive of the second half. Quincy Forte scored on a 7-yard run, his second touchdown of the game.
With Jenkins out, the JSU offense fell on Max Shortell, who hadn’t played since Nov. 16, although he could have last week at McNeese.
Without Jenkins, the Gamecocks became a running back-passer offense with no running threat from their quarterback. Shortell completed 12 of 22 for 173 yards passing in the half, but the Gamecocks had only 216 yards of offense and a field goal and the interception he threw in the fourth quarter was a dagger to the heart.
“It changed (the momentum), no question about that,” Eagles coach Beau Baldwin said. “Eli definitely is an athlete that presented some problems. I saw it on film.
“The other quarterback was still a player who has played a lot of football and done well – they had won games with both of them – (but) there was definitely a difference. … You just don’t know what type of game you would have gotten into.”
The Gamecocks’ defense had picked up their game when Jenkins went out. Jermaine Hough had just sacked Adams on a fourth-down play from the JSU 20 to keep the Gamecocks within 28-24.
Shortell even had them on the doorstep of a go-ahead score, reaching the Eastern 27, when he threw the pass that sealed JSU’s fate. Havili, saying he read Shortell’s eyes before the play, stepped into a throw over the middle and returned it 77 yards for an Eagles touchdown to make it 35-24 with 10:40 to play.
“It was an option deal where we throw the fade ball to (Josh) Barge,” Clark said. “He’s got two choices there, and he came back to the guy underneath. You throw late over the middle bad things happen, and that’s what happened."
Jenkins’ injury wasn’t the only one that had a profound effect on the Gamecocks.
Late in the first quarter, they lost Wright to a leg injury. They brought only eight linemen on the trip, so they had to slide a guard into his spot.
James was noticeably limping in the third quarter. He hobbled onto the field in a third-and-short situation as the Gamecocks were trying to match Eastern’s opening touchdown, prompting the sideline to call time out.
As much as James wanted to be in on the play, so did Troymaine Pope. The Anniston product got the yardage necessary to move the chains, and Griffin Thomas eventually kicked a 26-yard field goal.
They would be the Gamecocks’ only points of the second half.
Adams, one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Award next week, completed 18 of 29 passes for 324 yards. Clark made 11 receptions for 181 yards, and Kupp, who holds the FCS freshman records for catches, yards and touchdowns, had four receptions for 99 yards.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.