On Saturday, he couldn’t have felt any better.
Thomas kicked a 44-yard field goal in overtime Saturday to give Jacksonville State a 31-28 victory over No. 17 Tennessee State that made everyone in the Ohio Valley Conference with a hope of winning a conference title a little happier this morning.
The loss knocked the Tigers (7-1, 3-1 OVC) from the ranks of the unbeaten nationally and dropped them back into the jumble that is the OVC standings. The Gamecocks (4-3, 3-2) would have been out of it with a loss, falling three games behind TSU in the OVC loss column, but now they’re right back in the mix.
Thomas’ heroics came one week after the strong-legged junior missed two field attempts and had another blocked in a three-point JSU loss at Eastern Illinois, a situation JSU coach Jack Crowe called an “aberration.”
“It was good to rebound; that was the main thing,” Thomas said. “I had a bad week last week and I wasn’t happy with that. I couldn’t think of a better way to come out this week.”
It was the second time this year Thomas has kicked the Gamecocks to a win on the last play of the game; he beat Chattanooga with a 37-yarder in the home opener.
This one touched off the same kind of celebration, although Thomas didn’t quite get to the chain-link fence that guards the field house entrance to the field before being swamped by his teammates.
“I got further to the locker room this time, but I didn’t make it all the way inside,” he said. “I ran into a brick wall.”
Inside the pile, the message in his ear hole was the same.
“People were saying, ‘again, again,’” Thomas said. “Washaun (Ealey) called me ‘Clutch.’’
“I’m just happy he got another chance … to redeem himself from last week because I knew he was kind of sad because he didn’t live up to the expectations he had,” Ealey said. “That was great for him to come back with a game-winning field goal in overtime against an undefeated team.”
Thomas got his shot at redemption after TSU kicker Jamin Godfrey was side left on a 42-yard attempt on the Tigers’ overtime possession. TSU had to settle for the try after Mikel Whittier cleaned up on Brent Tolson’s pressure of quarterback Michael German for a 13-yard sack on third down from the 12.
“I knew it was about over then,” Whittier said. “I didn’t think their kicker could finish the job and I had the utmost confidence in our offense. … We just knew all week if we could put it in his hands we’re doing something good.”
Godfrey had a chance to beat the Gamecocks in regulation.
The Tigers, who tied the game on a touchdown with 9:20 to play before a series of three straight turnovers ramped up the drama, had lined up for a game-winning 42-yard field goal with four-tenths of a second left in regulation. Godfrey was successful on the attempt, but the Tigers were hit with a false start penalty.
Backed up to 47 yards, Godfrey’s do-over was wobbly to the right.
“We got lucky he missed and got the false start on that one,” Thomas said. “We got really lucky with those.”
“I guess you’d have to say things balance out over time,” Crowe said.
Coty Blanchard played most of the second half at quarterback for JSU because fifth-year senior starter Marques Ivory pulled his left hamstring running for a first down on a third-quarter touchdown drive that eventually gave JSU a 28-21 lead. Ivory appeared to be headed for an even larger gain on the play, but went to the ground as soon as caught sight of the markers and then showed a slight limp coming off the field.
He spent the next few minutes pacing in the bench area occasionally grabbing his lower left leg. He eventually was given an ice bag. Crowe said Ivory was available to return to the game if the Gamecocks couldn’t stay in it by keeping Blanchard’s legs in the game, but as it was Ivory’s next trip on the field was to represent the Gamecocks at the overtime coin toss.
Ivory was not made available in the structured lineup that is JSU’s post-game news conference. Team officials said he was receiving treatment. He finished with 187 yards and a touchdown on 11-of-17 passing.
Neither team led by more than seven points at any time in the game. TSU tied the game with 9:20 to play on Michael German’s second touchdown pass to Travis James – this one from 11 yards – that seemed to go right through JSU defenders Ben Endress and Robert Gray. Then the fun began.
Over the next 56 seconds, Ealey took his eye off the ball seeing a hole open in the line and lost a fumble, the Gamecocks got it back on Junior Hough’s second interception of the game, then lost it again when Steven Godbolt made an acrobatic one-hand interception on a Blanchard deep ball.
The Godbolt pick sent the Tigers on the way for the field goal attempt at the end of regulation. The Tigers caught two big breaks in the drive. JSU linebacker Rashad Smith was hit with a facemask penalty on fourth-and-16 from the JSU 40 and the Tigers recovered a German fumble inside the 30 with 10 seconds left in regulation.
With Damarcus James out and Troymaine Pope sidelined with an undisclosed injury, Ealey was the Gamecocks’ running game. He finished with 108 yards on 33 carries. He also caught five passes for 82 yards, including a 44-yard screen pass from Ivory for JSU’s second touchdown.
“Washaun did a great job of running,” Crowe said, “but we came in at halftime and what we finally said was there aren’t really any real big holes in here, you just need to hammer what you see and make first downs. I just thought he was tougher than a pine knot.”
Crowe said he didn’t believe Pope’s injury was serious, but “it may take some time” to heal. He said it was not similar nor “as severe” as the knee injury Pope suffered earlier this season.
TSU was able to hurt the Gamecocks with big plays, especially on third down, and ultimately outgained JSU by nearly 150 yards. Trabis Ware, the OVC’s leading rusher, had a game-high 168 yards on 34 carries. German finished with 311 yards and three touchdowns on 21-of-37 passing, but he was intercepted by Hough twice and sacked four times.
“If you look at the stats we may have gotten outperformed, but when you win you didn’t get outplayed,” Crowe said. “I thought we did the gutsy stuff it takes to win.
“I’m becoming increasingly more impressed with the players I’m coaching … so we’re a good football team. We probably ought to be sitting a little differently than we are, but I don’t think there was any way in this season without having to learn some things and we used what we learned earlier to fight this one to the wire.”