The Gamecocks suffered a biting 49-47 loss to UT Martin that began as a blowout and wound up coming within inches of going to overtime.
They may have lost by two, but it was one point that was missing that made the biggest difference.
The Gamecocks, 5-4 overall and now 4-3 in the OVC, trailed by as many as three touchdowns twice in the first half. But, at first with an aerial assault and later with a ground attack, with 41 seconds to play they were lining up for a two-point conversion they absolutely had to have in order to extend the game.
They didn’t make the play, obviously — Alan Bonner’s foot was beyond the end line — but they wouldn’t have needed it had normally sure-footed kicker Griffin Thomas not missed an otherwise routine extra point that would’ve tied the game with just under 14 minutes to play.
That score answered another Derek Carr-to-Quentin Sims touchdown pass that was set up by an 8-yard punt off the foot of freshman Hamish MacInnes.
“The two kicks just changed how you played,” JSU coach Jack Crowe said. “We were playing better defense and better offense as the game went on … but the breakdowns with the punt and the kick (were critical).
“Nobody hates it any worse than them. We dropped passes, we missed blocks, we missed tackles; everybody had one. It’s just with the danged kicker one is a ton. … I thought we were in control of the game until the miscues in the kicking game. One possession is everything. One point is everything. One short field is everything. The margin of error in this one was such one mistake could cost you.”
Both teams waged war through the air until the Gamecocks decided they were simply going to answer UT Martin’s dare to run straight at them and their Tennessee transfer nose tackle Montori Hughes.
JSU’s Marques Ivory and Alan Bonner both enjoyed career days. Ivory, playing every snap because junior Coty Blanchard didn’t make the trip (illness), threw for 323 yards and a school-record six touchdowns. Bonner hauled in a school-record five of them among his 10 catches for 235 yards, the second-best day for a receiver in school history.
UT Martin quarterback Derek Carr was equally impressive. He threw seven touchdowns passes in a game for the second time this season, the most against JSU in its Division I era — four in the first quarter — and passed for 402 yards. The fifth-year senior got a little matter of becoming the Skyhawks’ all-time leader in total offense out of the way on his first completion of the game, a 34-yarder to Quentin Sims in a portent of things to come.
Sims also had five touchdown catches — tying a UTM record on the books since 1957 — among his 10 catches for 137 yards. Jeremy Butler had nine catches for 101 yards and snared what turned out to be the winning touchdown with 5:31 to play.
Carr was the only one of the OVC’s four prolific passers to have that kind of success against the Gamecocks this year. Coming into the game, JSU had held Murray’s Casey Brockman, Tennessee Tech’s Tre Lamb and Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo to a combined passer rating below 90, the best of any team in the league.
Carr had a rating of 197.37 Saturday (Ivory was 177.59). Neither quarterback was intercepted; in fact, there were no turnovers in the game.
Crowe called Carr the best quarterback in the league and the Skyhawks (7-2, 5-1 and now tied for the league lead) a “more complete” team than the Gamecocks might have played this year, on a par with Tennessee State.
“He was the best,” JSU corner Rashod Byers said of Carr. “His balls were just to (places) where only his receivers could get it. He was the best we faced.”
Carr and Sims hooked up three times in the first quarter, including a 33-yarder on the final play, to give the Skyhawks a 28-7 lead and leave the Gamecocks vulnerable to a repeat their blowout at Eastern Kentucky. Sims scored on throws of 9, 8, 33, 16 and 8 yards.
“Coach didn’t want me to snap the ball, but I didn’t hear him,” Carr said of the final first-quarter play. “I really didn’t know it was the end of the quarter to tell you the truth. Quentin made a good catch and we ended up putting up 28 in the first quarter.”
The Skyhawks would need every bit of them.
With the score 35-14, Ivory and Bonner hooked up for three straight touchdowns, drawing JSU even for the first time 35-35 with 7:34 left in the third quarter.
Later in the quarter MacInnes’ shank put the Skyhawks at the JSU 37 and three plays later Carr and Sims connected for the fifth time to make it 42-35.
The Gamecocks were in position to retie the game on Bonner’s “crazy” one-handed grab at the goal line with 13:48 to play, but that’s when Thomas missed the extra point. The junior, who had won two games this season with last-minute field goals, had hit 33 straight PATs before the attempt.
“I pushed it and it missed by a few inches,” Thomas said. “I think I was thinking about the wind too much. It was coming at me, but I should’ve made the kick; there’s no excuse not to. You want to use the wind to your advantage and I just didn’t right there.”
Carr took advantage of the miss by getting his team in the end zone again, this time on a 4-yard pass to Butler that capped the Skyhawks’ most sustained drive of the day.
“Everybody knew there was a chance they’d miss that kick,” Carr said. “The ball bounced our way. God was on our side today; He blessed us with a good one today. That missed extra point really hurt them.”
The Gamecocks weren’t done. Working mostly on the ground with Washaun Ealey and Damarcus James, they went 87 yards in 12 plays with Ealey blasting in from the 2 with 41 seconds left. James rushed for 45 yards in the drive and finished with 128 yards on 22 carries in his first game back since Oct. 13 (concussion).
But JSU still needed the conversion to come all the way back. The play flowed right and Ivory threw toward Bonner in the back of the end zone. The play carried a little long.
“I think I might have been a step or two out of bounds,” Bonner said. “The ball kind of drifted away from me. I just tried to get up and get down as quick as I could and be as close as I could, but I was out of bounds. I knew I was going to have to get my toe down so I was trying to get it down as quick as possible.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.