Special to College Sports Journal
Editor’s note: This story is courtesy of Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State athletics.
JACKSONVILLE, AL. — Twenty-three years after winning a national title in its last season in NCAA Division II, Jacksonville State will play for another championship, this time at the FCS level.
The No. 1 Gamecocks scored on seven of their first eight possessions and overwhelmed No. 6 Sam Houston State 62-10 in the NCAA Division I Football Championships to earn a trip to the FCS title game on Jan. 9.
Jacksonville State (13-1) avenged last year’s home playoff loss to the Bearkats and advances to face four-time defending FCS champ North Dakota State (12-2) at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Sam Houston State (11-4), the FCS leader in total offense at 551 yards per game, never recovered after fumbling away the opening kickoff.
Jacksonville State scored 17 first-quarter points and established a school record for first-half points by stretching its lead to 41-10 at intermission.
The Gamecocks dominated every phase before a record Burgess-Snow Field crowd of 23,692, rolling up 639 total yards, forcing four turnovers – all in the first half – and limiting the Bearkats to nearly 300 yards and 33 points below their season average.
Troymaine Pope was unstoppable again, rushing for 182 yards and one touchdown, while quarterback Eli Jenkins completed 17-of-23 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns while running for three more TDs.
Pope extended his school record for single-season rushing to 1,757 yards and is 29 yards shy of eclipsing the OVC record.
Jacksonville State is the first Ohio Valley Conference representative to play for the FCS championship since Eastern Kentucky in 1982.
“I don’t think we could have played much better,” said Jacksonville State second-year head coach John Grass. “The first half was probably the best half of football I’ve ever been around. We put ourselves in a position to win a national championship and that’s right where we want to be. We’re proud to be representing the Ohio Valley Conference and we’re going to bring the national championship back home.”
Connor Rouleau‘s game-opening kickoff was fumbled by Sam Houston State’s Hayden Cagle and recovered by the Gamecocks’ Santavius Oden at the Bearkats 31. Jacksonville State capitalized quickly on the turnover, needing just four plays to get to the end zone with Jenkins finishing off the drive with a 1-yard run with less than two minutes elapsed.
“Obviously the mistake we made on the opening kickoff really hurt us,” said Sam Houston State coach K.C. Keeler. “You know when you’re in those games where you know the next one is the national championship, sometimes those things just multiply.”
Four first half turnovers (three fumbles and an interception) set up 24 points for the Gamecocks as JSU jumped out to a 31-0 lead halfway through second quarter.
The Bearkats fumbled again on their next series, with E.J. Moss pouncing on the loose football at the JSU 15. The Gamecocks needed just five plays this time with Pope breaking free on a 62-yard scamper with 9:42 remaining in the first.
Rouleau’s 36-yard field goal midway through the first quarter put the Gamecocks ahead 17-0 and the rout was on.
The lead became 31-0 following Miles Jones‘ 3-yard TD and Jenkins’ 12-yard scoring pass to Ruben Gonzalez. Rouleau added a 22-yard field goal and Pope scored on a 7-yard run as Jacksonville State opened a 41-7 lead with 59 seconds left in the half.
Sam Houston State never got closer than 31 points after halftime.
“The coaches have been talking about Frisco since we lost to Sam Houston State last year,” said Jenkins.
We’ve been preparing for this day.”
“I told Coach Grass when we shook hands that was as good of a football team as I’ve played and we’re hoping those guys go and win the national championship. They deserve it,” Keeler said of the Gamecocks.
Reaching the semifinals for the fourth time in five years, Sam Houston ended the season with an 11-4 record.
The Bearkats advanced farther than any unseeded team in the playoffs both in 2014 and 2015. The loss ended a five-game winning streak that included playoff wins over Southern Utah, McNeese State and Colgate.
“Right now I’m trying to figure out where Jacksonville State’s deficiences are,” Keeler said. “Their quarterback is a great player. Their offensive line is as good as we’ve played. Their wide receiver crew is amazing. I felt if we had played at a high level, we would have had a chance. But we didn’t. I have to give a lot of credit to them for that.”
All-American sophomore defensive end P. J. Hall was one of the few bright spots for the Bearkats. Hall had a hand in 12 tackles including a tackle for loss, batted down two passes and made an amazing tackle on a 54-yard run by Pope, chasing the speedy running back down from across the field to make an open-field stop at the Sam Houston 10.
Running back Corey Avery highlighted the Bearkat offense with 81 yards on 14 carries. Yedidiah Louis caught 10 passes for 103 yards.
Lofting their kickoffs high and short to keep the ball out of the hands of Sam Houston’s dangerous return specialists, JSU recovered a Bearkat fumble on the opening kickoff to set up a quick four-play 31-yard drive for a one-yard touchdown by Jenkins. The put JSU go up 7-0 just 1:35 into the contest.
Fumbles set up Jacksonville State’s next two scores with the Gamecocks taking a 17-0 after a 62-yard scoring run by Pope and a 36-yard field goal by Connor Rouleau.
Barge’s 33-yard punt return sparked an eight-play, 37-yard drive for a three-yard Miles Jones score and Jenkins Josh Barge for a 32-yard score and Gonzalez for a 12-yard TD to build a 31-0 lead.
Sam Houston’s only touchdown of the first half involved a fumble. Tailback Corey Avery looked to be going into the end zone for a three-yard score when the ball was stripped out of his hands. Wide receiver LaDarius Brown covered the ball at the back of the end zone to complete a seven-play, 61-yard drive.
Tre Honshtein kicked a 51-yard field goal, three yards short of Billy Hayes’ school record of 54 yards set in 1987, to end the first half. In the opening 30 minutes, JSU converted 8-of-12 third down attempts while the Kat offense went 2-for-8. Jacksonville State outgained Sam Houston 314 yards to 154 in the opening 30 minutes, going into the locker room at intermission with a 41-10 lead.
The Gamecocks added 21 points in the second half on an eight-yard scoring catch by Gonzalez and touchdown runs by Mile Jones for three yards and Christian LeMay for 13 yards yards.
“What a great year we had. Today we lost to an outstanding football team, one of the best FCS squads I’ve ever faced in my career,” Keeler said. “To have a change against JSU we had to play a lot better than we did today. We let those early mistakes multiply and dug ourselves too deep a hole.”
JSU POSTGAME NOTES
· Jacksonville State has now won the opening toss 12 times on the season and deferred every time. The Gamecocks are now 11-1 on the season when winning the toss and has won the toss in all three playoff games.
· With his 121 receiving yards in the game, Josh Barge broke the school’s career receiving yards record. He now has 2,917 career receiving yards, passing Joey Hamilton’s record of 2,903 set from 1996-99.
· Josh Barge joins Hamilton as the only two 1,000-yard receivers in school history and broke Hamilton’s school record for receiving yards in a single season with his 121 on Saturday. He now has 1,113 on the year, breaking Hamilton’s record of 1,010 in 1997.
· Jax State’s three first quarter fumble recoveries marks the first time the Gamecocks have recovered three fumbles in a game since Nov. 30, 2013 in the playoffs against Samford.
· After finishing the game with six catches, receiver Josh Barge now has 204 receptions for his career, extending his school record and tying for fifth in OVC history. He now has 90 receptions on the season, which is tied for sixth in OVC history.
· For the first time in school history, the Jacksonville State offense has accumulated over 7,000 yards of total offense on the season. After finishing the game with 639 yards, JSU now has 7,409 in 2015.
· On the Ohio Valley Conference total offense list, JSU quarterback Eli Jenkins passed former Eastern Illinois quarterback Tony Romo (8,059) for eighth on the all-time list. Jenkins now has 8,212 yards of total offense in his career.
· Senior defensive end Chris Landrum Sr.,’s late second quarter sack tied the Jacksonville State school record of sacks in a career. Landrum finished the game with 1.5 sacks, tying Sr., tied Warren Blair’s mark of 16.
· JSU’s 41 first half points were the most points in a first half in school history. It ties the 2001 team, who scored 41 points in the second half against Cumberland, for the most points in any half in school history.
· Senior receiver Ruben Gonzalez set a career-high with two touchdown receptions in a game.
· Troymaine Pope‘s 181 yards in the game marked the 13th time he has run for over 100 rushing yards in a game, third-most in a career in school history. Jacksonville State is now 13-0 when the Anniston native goes over the century mark in a game.
· Jacksonville State becomes the first OVC team since Eastern Kentucky in 1981 to play in the NCAA FCS National Championship game.
· The win gives Jacksonville State 13 victories on the season, which ties the 1989 team for the most wins in a season in school history. The mark ties the 1982 EKU team for the most wins for a team in OVC history.
· Eli Jenkins now has 3,804 yards of total offense on the season, which is the fourth most in OVC history.
· Troymaine Pope now extends his school-record single-season rushing record to 1,757 yards, which is 29 yards shy of tying the OVC single-season mark of 1,786, set by Akron’s Mike Clark in1986.
· JSU’s 62 points is the most points scored by an OVC team in the FCS playoffs. The mark is one point shy of the school’s postseason record of 63 against West Chester in the first round of the 1988 NCAA Division II Playoffs.
· The attendance was 23,692, a new JSU Stadium record. It breaks the previous record of 23,413, set against Tennessee State on Sept. 19 of this season.
· Jacksonville State pushes its all-time record in the NCAA semifinals to 5-0, with all five wins coming at home. The previous four wins were all in the Division II Playoffs.
· With the win, Jacksonville State advances to the NCAA FCS National Championship game for the first time in school history.
· With two rushing touchdowns, Troymaine Pope now has 19 this season, tying Oscar Bonds (2004) for second on the JSU’s single-season rushing touchdown list. DaMarcus James holds the record of 29 set in 2013.
No. 1 ranked Jacksonville State took control of the NCAA Division I Football Championship semifinals from the opening kickoff as the Gamecocks rolled to a 62-10 victory over No. 6 Sam Houston Saturday at Burgess-Snow field in Alabama.
JSU POSTGAME QUOTES
Head Coach John Grass
“Outstanding performance, that’s the only way I can sum it up. It’s great to be sitting here after a win like that. I don’t think we could’ve played much better. The first half was probably the best half of football I’ve ever been around. I said before the season that this group was going to be a special group to watch play. They handle their business on-and-off the field. We put ourselves in a position to win a national championship, and that’s right where we want to be. It was a great effort tonight all the way down from our fans to our team. Hats off to our student section and fans, what a great crowd that created so much energy during the game. We’re proud to be representing the Ohio Valley Conference and we’re going to bring the national championship back home.”
On beating Sam Houston State in order to get to the national championship
“We didn’t play terrible last year, but we didn’t play our best. Sam Houston (State) is a great team, great program. We beat a dang good football team tonight. They’re the No. 1 team in terms of offense and we held them to 10 points. We played really well. We lived losing to them for over a year now, and you can live with that if you played your best, but we knew we didn’t play our best last year and that’s hard to swallow. This bunch has been hungry and driven every day. They wanted to get back and have another opportunity. We aren’t done yet, we are hungry to be playing in the national championship game.”
On facing North Dakota State
“We see this as a challenge. When I first came here, they were the first game I watched. That’s where you set the bar at and that’s where the standard has been for the past four years. The road goes through them to win it. We’re glad to have the opportunity and we are happy to be traveling to Texas and getting the opportunity to play them. It goes back to playing a faceless opponent, it’s all about how we play. I like our chances if we play well. I’m just blessed to be associated with such a great group of men and they’re going to make the holidays really special this year, that’s for sure.”
Eli Jenkins, Jr. QB
On what this moment means to him
“It’s a great opportunity and we’re blessed to be in this situation. The coaches have been talking about Frisco (Texas) since we lost to Sam Houston (State) last year. We’ve been preparing for this day. We wanted this game and came out and showed the world we were the most physical team on the field today. It’s just great. We played good, but I feel like we can play better. I’m just happy to be in this situation.”
Dawson Wells, Sr. LB
On what this moment means to him
“I feel like we deserve this. We weren’t satisfied with the OVC championship, because we knew Frisco (Texas) was the ultimate goal. We knew if we bought in to the coaches’ game plan, we were going to make it and here we are. I think we are getting close and hopefully we can put it all together in Frisco.”
Josh Barge, Jr, WR
On what this moment means to him
“After the loss last year to Sam Houston (State), we still had that bitter taste in our mouth all summer and all season long. We felt like we beat ourselves. The crowd was amazing and we felt like they were behind us all season long. We just did what we like to do and came out and got the win. It’s a blessed feeling. We’re going to enjoy this tonight, but we have three weeks to prepare for a team that has won it numerous times. I think this year is our time and our team knows that.”