The Gamecocks opened their season with a revenue game at Arkansas and left Razorback Stadium with a 49-24 loss that was a better effort than a lot of people anticipated and certainly the Razorbacks expected.
That result is in the record books. They’re 0-1 and now it’s FCS teams all the way until the season-finale at Florida.
Now, on to the bigger news for the Gamecocks’ future.
What of Washaun Ealey?
The Gamecocks’ senior running back with NFL aspirations hurt his right knee early in the game and was limited to four carries and nine yards.
Ealey spent the rest of the game on the sideline in his uniform. He walked off the field after the game valiantly trying to hold a strong gait.
“He’s got a knee that kept him from returning to the game,” JSU coach Jack Crowe said. “We told him right after it happened you’re not going back in and the next thing we look out there and everybody’s saying who put him in?
“The longer he went without running it just got really stiff. It just didn’t make any sense (to put him back in). We’ll see. I’d like to think we’d have him, but heck I’ve got no idea.”
Having seen the team doctor during the game, there’s no need for another evaluation today. The key element is the time it takes to reduce the swelling.
In Ealey’s absence, the Gamecocks had to turn to two backs with limited experience and both averaged nearly five yards a carry. Freshman Troymaine Pope made an impressive debut. He caught a touchdown pass on his first college touch and finished with a team-high 70 yards on 14 carries. Sophomore DaMarcus James added 44 yards on nine carries.
“It’s always bad to lose somebody, especially you’re starting running back,” quarterback Marques Ivory said, “but we have other guys who can get the job done and we have no doubt they can. It’s disappointing, but we just have to move forward.”
There were a lot of people in Razorback Stadium Saturday night who were glad to see JSU coach Jack Crowe before the game.
As much as Crowe didn’t want the game to be about his return, it was unavoidable. He was back in the stadium where he was head coach from 1990 to the 1992 season opener in which his team lost to Division I-AA Citadel.
There were hugs, handshakes and kind greetings on the sideline and around the dressing room from former players and well-wishers he hadn’t seen in 20 years. The response helped Arkansas draw 71,062, its third largest crowd for a season opener in school history.
“I’m glad to be here and I love Arkansas and I am pulling for the Razorbacks,” Crowe said. “You want me to sing the fight song for you? Because every time they played it, the words were in my head. I’m glad to be back. If I ever met three people from Arkansas in my role here that weren’t classy, I don’t remember who they were.
“But I came here to lead this Jacksonville State football team and that’s where my emotions were and they never strayed — not for one second.”
The 10th-ranked Razorbacks, meanwhile, were dealing with some 21st Century drama, as John L. Smith was coaching his first game with the
Razorbacks after being hired to bring stability to the program following the firing of Bobby Petrino for personal indiscretions. As long as Smith continues to keep the faithful happy, he’ll get the same loving treatment from the Arkansas fans as Crowe had beyond that “one bad day.”
For those who were looking for Saturday’s game to be a blowout — there was some national media who put the Gamecocks in the “cupcake” category this weekend — it wasn’t quite the show Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson was projecting it to be earlier in the week.
The difference in the game was the four possessions Arkansas scored touchdowns on after JSU took a 14-7 lead in the second quarter.
The Gamecocks took advantage of two Arkansas turnovers and grab their lead before the Razorbacks woke up and showed the form that puts it in the conversation for a national championship.
The Razorback scored four touchdowns in a little more than nine minutes to put the Gamecocks in a 35-14 hole, but JSU got back as close as 35-24 early in the third quarter.
“Of course we surprised them,” senior receiver Alan Bonner said. “They were predicted to beat us 52-7. We came out to prove them wrong.”
During the run that Arkansas pulled away, Wilson threw touchdown passes to tight end Chris Gragg on the first two possessions, Ronnie Wingo scored on a 3-yard run and Knile Davis scored on a 5-yard run.
Wilson lived up to Crowe’s assertion of being the best quarterback in the nation by completing 19 of 27 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns. Gragg caught seven for 110 yards, Brandon Mitchell caught four for 122 yards and Javontee Herndon caught four for 96.
“The biggest part of this game was about four or five mismatches,” Crowe said. “There are some players out there that are as talented as you’re ever going to find.”
The Gamecocks didn’t flinch down 35-14. They had only 26 yards of second-quarter offense to that point, but that quickly changed. Ivory hit Bonner on a 28-yard pass and the Gamecocks were off to score before the half’s end. Ivory and Bonner hooked up for that touchdown, a 10-yard pass with eight seconds to go to make it 35-21 at the half.
Ivory was 14 of 28 passing for 160 yards and two touchdowns. Bonner caught eight balls for 107 yards.
“As far as I’m concerned, he made some great plays out there,” Crowe said of Ivory. “I thought Alan was the go-to guy. Quez knew where he was and what he was doing.”
The Gamecocks cut their deficit by three more on Griffin Thomas’ 49-yard field goal to open the third-quarter scoring. But they were the only points the Gamecocks scored in the half. Arkansas pulled away again with a 63-yard Wilson pass to Javontee Herndon and a 9-yard Dennis Johnson run.
Neither team scored in the fourth quarter, and it seemed to bother the Razorbacks as they reinserted Wilson and several other starters toward the end of the game.
“I told them they ought to be able to play better in the second half, to be able to make a difference, but we didn’t,” Crowe said. “I don’t think they played better in the second half than they did the first, because I thought we’d play with more consistency.
Both teams got off to a choppy start.
Arkansas took the opening possession into JSU territory, but Wilson fumbled and JSU linebacker Rashad Smith returned it 49 yards to start the Gamecocks’ first offensive series of the series inside the Arkansas 30. The Gamecocks managed only four yards in the series and when they tried to salvage it, Griffin Thomas had his 37-yard field goal attempt blocked.
Arkansas marched right back down the field and scored the game’s first touchdown, but it wasn’t easy. The Gamecocks stopped Davis twice from the 1, but Kody Walker powered in on third down.
The Gamecocks matched it with an 83-yard scoring drive, alternating Coty Blanchard and Marques Ivory at quarterback virtually every snap. The drive seemed to hit a snag when an Ivory swing pass was ruled a failed lateral and lost 10 yards, but on the next play Ivory swung out a pass to Pope and the freshman from Anniston — on his first touch in a college game — found the end zone to tie the game with 40 seconds left in the first quarter.
It was only a few minutes later the Gamecocks had the lead. Another fumble recovery gave JSU possession at the Razorbacks 35. Four plays later, Bonner scored on a 4-yard end around and the Gamecocks were on top 14-7 with 13:09 left in the half.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.