Spring 2021 FCS Round 1 Playoff Preview: Davidson at Jacksonville State

A season unlike any previous in the history of college football begins a new chapter as the FCS Playoffs get underway this weekend with 16 teams taking the field in hopes of eventually hoisting a national championship trophy on the field in Frisco, Texas.

Jacksonville State, the No. 4 seed in this year’s playoffs, will play host to Davidson, the Pioneer League champion, in one of eight first-round games. It will be the first-ever meeting between the Gamecocks and Wildcats.

DAVIDSON (4-2 Overall) at JACKSONVILLE STATE (9-2 Overall)
TV: ESPN3 (subscription required), Radio: WLJS 91.9FM (Jacksonville State)

Overview: Davidson, members of the Pioneer League, will be making its first postseason appearance in a very long time when the Wildcats take on Jacksonville State Saturday in Jacksonville.

The imprints of Neal Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind,” were still fresh on the surface of the moon months before Davidson captured the Southern Conference championship for the only time in school history and played in the Tangerine Bowl at season’s end.

The Wildcats opened that history-making season under the leadership of then-coach Homer Smith, by winning their first five games before falling on the road at The Citadel 34-28. They rebounded to win the next two weeks to improve to 7-1 by defeating VMI in a Homecoming game in Davidson and won at East Carolina the following week.

That proved to be the high-water mark for the Wildcats. They lost to Wofford and Vanderbilt before losing to Toledo 56-33 in the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Fla. Davidson finished the season 7-4.

“We’re excited to be in the tournament,” said Davidson coach Scott Abell, a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award as the nation’s top coach in FCS. “We knew we’d get one of the best teams in the country and Jacksonville State is certainly that.

“What a great opportunity for our program … getting a playoff berth in year three was probably something few people gave us a shot at,” Abell added, “so I’m excited about the experience ahead for our guys.”

Despite the long absence from postseason play and the fact Davidson is going up against a tough JSU team this time around, don’t expect the Wildcats to be awestruck.

The Gamecocks will be the third ranked opponent Davidson will have faced during this spring’s schedule.

Davidson opened the spring season by dropping a 26-23 decision to Elon, which was ranked No. 21 in the nation at the time. The Wildcats would win their next four games, including a 31-25 win over Pioneer League powerhouse San Diego that helped secure the PL’s automatic bid into the playoff. The regular season came to an end with a 29-24 loss at Presbyterian. The Wildcats had defeated the Blue Hose 41-24 earlier this spring in Davidson.

Postseason play is nothing new to Jacksonville State.

The playoffs have been a common destination for Jacksonville State since the turn of the century.

The Gamecocks, by virtue of winning the Ohio Valley Conference championship for ninth time in school history and the sixth time in the past seven seasons, will be making their seventh appearance in the playoffs since 2014. This will be the 10th overall appearance in the FCS postseason for the Gamecocks. 

They won back-to-back OVC crowns in 2003-04 and won a third title in 2011 before reeling off five straight championships (2014-18) prior to having that impressive streak snapped and being kept out of the playoffs in 2019.

JSU was seeded in the top four in four straight playoff appearances (2014-17).

The Gamecocks are 6-9 all-time in playoff games, including a loss to North Dakota State in the 2015 championship game.

And to the Winner Goes …: The winner of Saturday’s game between the Wildcats and Gamecocks will move on to play the winner of the game between Sacred Heart and Delaware. The Pioneers and Blue Hens are scheduled to kickoff at 7 p.m. Saturday in Newark, Del.

DAVIDSON WILDCATS

There is no secret that the Wildcats like to run the ball. And then run the ball some more.

Davidson enters the playoff game against Jacksonville State averaging 293.8 yards per game on the ground and three players who have turned in strong performances toting the football all spring.

Quarterback Tyler Phelps (6-2, 217, SR.) has rushed for 323 yards on 72 carries (4.5 ypc) this season and has scored once on the ground. He does not go to the air often and has completed just 44 of his 76 pass attempts for 617 yards and six touchdowns for the Wildcats. Davidson is averaging just 102.8 yards per game through the air this season.

Dylan Sparks (6-1, 201, So., RB) and Coy Williams (5-11, 202, Jr., RB) have been the workhorses for Davidson out of the backfield this season and have combined for nearly 1,000 through the six games. 

Sparks is the leader of that duo. He has carried 107 times for 519 yards (4.9 ypc) and four touchdowns to emerge as one of the top young backs in the Pioneer League. Williams, meanwhile, has rushed for 459 yards on 86 carries (5.3 ypc) and six touchdowns of his own.

Jalen Staples (5-9, 174, Jr., WR) is far and away the go-to guy whenever the Wildcats do decide to go to the air. He has caught 15 passes for 195 yards (13.0 ypc) and has two TDs to his credit this season. Eli Turner (5-9, 180, Jr., SB) has caught six passes for 111 yards, a whopping 18.5 yards per catch, and has scored once.

Satchell Moore (6-3, 192, Sr., WR) has also proven reliable at catching the ball. He has nine receptions for 97 yards (10.8 ypc) and has scored once for the Wildcats.

The Davidson defense can best be described as yeoman-like as the Wildcats have simply performed well as a unit and taken on that proverbial bent-but-don’t break mentality. 

Linebackers Jake Alexander (6-0, 189, Jr.) and Jalen Jefferson (5-11, 205, Jr.) may be undersized by most linebacking standards, but their athleticism is unmistakable and have played a big role in Davidson limiting the opposition to just 131.8 rushing yards per game this season. 

Alexander and Jefferson have both tallied 40 total tackles to share the team lead in that department. Alexander has 25 solo tackles to his credit this season, including four tackles for loss and one forced fumble. His counterpart, Jefferson, has 22 solo stops, including one TFL and one interception.

Jaylon Bolden (6-3, 206, Sr., CB) leads the Davidson secondary with 35 (26 solo) tackles and one interception. 

As a unit, the Wildcats have given up 224.7 yards per game this season and will be tested by JSU on Saturday.

So balanced are the Wildcats on defense that their top six tacklers average at least four tackles per game.

JACKSONVILLE STATE GAMECOCKS

The Gamecocks have their own potent 1-2 punch out of the backfield and that puts a big spotlight on Saturday’s game squarely in the backfield. Which of those units can best maneuver around the defense will go a long way in determining who advances to the next round of this year’s playoffs.

Josh Samuel (5-11, 215, RS, Jr., RB) is the leading rusher for the Gamecocks. He has carried 131 times in 11 games for 707 yards (5.4 ypc) and seven touchdowns on the year. He has been more than adequately complemented by Uriah West (6-0, 225, Jr., RB) who has 121 carries for 603 yards (5.0 ypc) and five TDs of his own while also appearing in all 11 games for the Gamecocks.

JSU quarterback Zion Webb (6-0, 200, RS, Jr.) has emerged as one of the top signal callers in the nation this season after stepping in for former quarterback Zerrick Cooper, who was injured during the fall portion of the season and opted out of the spring season.

All Webb has done in place of Cooper has been to complete 110 of 188 passes for 1,524 yards and throw for 11 touchdowns. He has also rushed for 316 yards on 69 carries (4.6 ypc) and four more scores for the Gamecocks.

JSU has one of the most balanced offensive attacks among this year’s playoff participants. The Gamecocks are averaging 393.8 yards of offense per game this season and 193.5 of those yards have come on the ground.

The passing game spearheaded by Webb has accounted for 200.4 yards per game.

And that should come as little surprise. After all, the Gamecocks have two outstanding players who are extremely reliable … and productive.

Tight end Trae Berry (6-7, 245, Sr.) leads the team in receptions with 27 for 460 yards, which also leads the team. He averages 17.0 yards per catch. His production has come despite playing in just eight games for the Gamecocks.

On the outside Dave Russell (6-0, 203, RS, So., WR) has caught 24 passes for 351 yards (14.6 ypc) and has scored three touchdowns.

The Jacksonville State defense is no slouch. Thanks in large part to Nicario Harper (6-1, 205, RS, So., S), who spent two seasons at Southern Miss before joining the Gamecocks.

All Harper has done this season is lead the team in tackles with 79 (39 solo) heading into Saturday’s game against the Wildcats. He has intercepted three passes already this season and has added three pass breakups and forced one fumble.

Harper was recently named a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award as the nation’s top defensive player. 

Marshall Clark (6-0, 210, RS, So., LB) has also turned in a solid season so far for JSU. He is second on the team with 68 (24 solo) tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss and one interception. Markail Benton (6-2, 235, RS, Jr.), another linebacker, has chipped in with 51 (22 solo) tackles. He has 2.5 TFLs and two sacks to his credit.

DJ Coleman (6-6, 265, Jr.) and Jaylen Swain (5-10, 235, Fr.) are outstanding bookends along the defensive front for Jacksonville State and have made their presence felt in a big way. Coleman has 49 (24 solo) tackles on the year, including an impressive 11 TFLs and eight sacks.  Swain, meanwhile, has 10.5 TFLs and three sacks among his 43 (27 solo) tackles this season.

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