The Gamecocks ran en masse to the LP Field end zone where the Marching Southerners played DJ Khaled’s “All I Do is Win.”
Coaches hugged coaches, players hugged players and players head-butted coaches, leaving JSU head coach Jack Crowe bleeding slightly just above his left eye.
“Two head-butts and a Jamison,” he explained, referring to senior defensive lineman Jamison Wadley’s exuberant contact with his coach.
Back in the locker room, Wadley, cigar clinched between his teeth, accepted an Ohio Valley Conference championship T-shirt from assistant commissioner for media relations Kyle Schwartz.
Crowe handed the game ball to new athletics director Warren Koegle, and Koegle relayed a congratulatory text message from JSU president Dr. Bill Meehan.
It was fitting that the celebration had all of the championship elements, because it followed one of JSU’s most complete games of the year. The Gamecocks were efficient, responded when challenged and closed an OVC opponent.
But as it was in 2009 — when a JSU team not eligible to win the OVCbecause of APR-related penalties celebrated finishing with the league’s best record — Saturday’s banner day came with a big “yeah, but.”
Yeah, but a JSU team that was picked to win its first OVC title since 2004 won only a share of it, finishing in a three-way tie with Tennessee Tech and Eastern Kentucky.
Yeah, but JSU’s share didn’t come with the automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Tennessee Tech won the tie breaker.
So yeah, unranked JSU (7-4) likely will miss the 20-team FCS playoffs, sealing off a barrel of “if-onlys” with a great big “yeah, but”.
“We’re approaching it like the season is over,” Crowe said, hoping to downplay the playoffs and play up what counts JSU’s 18th conference championship in football.
If only a JSU team that reached as high as No. 8 in the FCS polls this season had managed one more game like its handling of Tennessee Tech, there’d be no yeah, buts about it.
Quarterback Coty Blanchard was highly efficient, completing 15 of 19 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for a touchdown.
Running backs Calvin Middleton and Washaun Ealey combined for 156 yards in total offense and three touchdowns, with Middleton catching the second and third touchdown receptions of his career in what was likely his final college game.
Receiver Alan Bonner caught seven passes for 127 yards.
JSU’s defense pressured TSU quarterback Mike German and intercepted three of his passes, two at JSU’s goal line. Pierre Warren returned the last one 98 yards for a touchdown.
The game ended with JSU stopping TSU running back Trabis Ward at the 2-yard line — a moment for JSU to dish out what it got when Eastern Kentucky stopped Middleton on the final play of the Gamecocks’ agonizing, 52-48 loss on Nov. 5.
Just one of the many things JSU got right Saturday that reminded of things the Gamecocks got wrong in games that put the “yeah, but” on their OVC championship.
Clinging to a 14-10 lead with eight minutes left in the second quarter, the Gamecocks converted a fourth-down-and-9 play from TSU’s 48 on Blanchard’s 16-yard pass to a slanting Bonner. It reminded of the fateful decision to go on fourth down in the second quarter against Tennessee Tech, rather than pooch punt Tech deep.
Tech turned the chance into the first of three touchdowns in four possessions carrying into the second half and won 21-14.
Back to Saturday, JSU scored twice after TSU rallied for a 10-7 lead then added two more scores after the Tigers closed to within 24-16 of the final play of the third quarter.
Admit it. Thoughts of the Eastern Kentucky game crept in. It’ll take a long time for JSU fans to get over the trauma of seeing the Gamecocks blow a 24-point lead in the final 7:25.
It didn’t happen that way Saturday.
Instead of JSU giving up a 71-yard fumble return for a touchdown, the Gamecocks snagged a 98-yard interception return of a score.
Instead of losing composure when TSU closed to within one score headed into the fourth quarter, JSU’s defense forced two consecutive 3-and-outs and two turnovers, the final one on downs.
JSU’s offense sealed the deal with Blanchard’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Middleton to make it 31-16 with 2:30 to play. No big hit and fumble this time, like what happened to Middleton on JSU’s last-gasp drive against Tennessee Tech.
JSU got it right Saturday and closed out a nice recovery after those two consecutive, playoff-killing home losses to Tennessee Tech and Eastern Kentucky. The Gamecocks closed with two road victories, at Southeast Missouri and Tennessee State.
That means JSU (7-4) finished OVC play at 6-2, just enough to break the drought for what counts as an OVC title. And while it has that “yeah, but” feeling like 2009, there’s one is difference.
“It’s the same feeling, but it’s better because, you know, we get the jewelry now this time,” Middleton said. “We get something to show for it.”
Crowe spun JSU’s share of the OVC title as a tangible accomplishment at time when JSU needs one to propel the program toward bigger goals, like the school’s stated desire to explore a move up to Football Bowl Subdivision.
Maybe. Yeah, OK.
But JSU’s share doesn’t come with an automatic playoff bid and chance for JSU’s first playoff victory as a Division I program.
Yeah, but it’s a just share of the title for the team Crowe billed as the best of his 12 years at JSU.
Yeah, but Saturday’s celebration comes with a tinge of disappointment.
“The conference championship, I wish it a solo,” Crowe acknowledged. “We probably did 80 percent of what it takes to have a solo championship.
“But we didn’t do a hundred percent of what it took.”
And that’s why it doen’t feel like a hundred-percent championship.
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576, or follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.