The 13th-year Jacksonville State coach entered coaching’s Century Club Saturday with a 38-35 win over Murray State that is special for a number of reasons beyond the obvious.
First, it came at Homecoming, where winning once was automatic but in the Gamecocks’ Division I era not so much.
Second, the Gamecocks (5-3, 4-2 OVC) outdueled the most prolific offense in the conference with a mix of offensive efficiency and stout defense — especially in the second half.
“I’ll remember winning Homecoming, that’s what I’ll remember,” said Crowe, now 100-85 in 18 years as a head coach. “The 100th on a Homecoming, that’s what I’ll remember, because … it is not fun around here when you don’t win Homecoming.
“Homecoming wins stick a little bit longer. If you don’t know that, lose one and see how long it stays with you.”
For the record, the Gamecocks are 55-10-2 when they welcome back the alums, but they were only 8-4 under Crowe before Saturday and had lost two of their last three.
Senior running back Washaun Ealey helped Crowe commemorate the milestone by giving the coach who took him in from Georgia the game ball.
How the Gamecocks did it was just as memorable as what they did.
They kept Murray quarterback Casey Brockman off the field with an offense that held the ball for 91 plays over 39 minutes, converted 11 of 21 third-down situations and outgained the nation’s fourth-ranked offense by 77 yards.
What the offense didn’t do, the defensive finished the job.
It held Brockman to 255 yards passing — nearly 130 yards below his season average — on only 19 completions in 36 attempts. The Gamecocks, who at one time were ranked last in the country in pass efficiency defense, didn’t surrender a touchdown pass and intercepted Brockman three times — by Junior Hough, Raheam Buxton and Rashod Byers.
Coming into the game, the Racers senior had thrown 20 touchdown passes and been intercepted only five times in 370 attempts this season. He had been picked only once in 212 OVC passes. The Gamecocks got him for the first time Saturday on his sixth attempt, and they converted two of their interceptions into their first two touchdowns of the game.
Just as important, they held the Racers (3-5, 2-3), the nation’s No. 5 scoring team, to 93 net yards and only seven points in the second half and no points in the fourth quarter, ending a streak of 23 straight quarters or overtime the Racers have scored.
“We just knew what we had to go do,” Byers said. “In the first half we weren’t getting it done. At halftime we said we’re going to go out there and make sure we do get it done and get out of there with a win.”
The Gamecocks, meanwhile, had a balanced offense, even if there were some elements that left them wanting. They rushed for 239 yards, largely behind Ealey, and passed for 205 yards through the air throwing one fewer pass than Brockman. Ealey enjoyed his third straight 100-yard rushing game, his second best game of the year and fourth most productive rushing day with the Gamecocks when he went for 146 yards and three touchdowns on 37 carries — a figure that even awed his teammates. He scored on runs of 29, 1 and 2 yards.
“That was big time,” quarterback Marques Ivory praised. “He lives up to it, though. This is what he’s been wanting. This is what he came to us for, to be the feature guy. We got two backs out right now so that’s his role. He’s living up to it.”
With Damarcus James and Troymaine Pope both sidelined with injuries, Ealey has carried it 70 times in the last two games. He has rushed for 403 yards and seven touchdowns in his last three games.
“The coaches did a good job of subbing me in and out and getting me prepared throughout the week, just knowing I was going to have to carry the majority of the load,” Ealey said. “I feel like I’m just getting into the groove and I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to help my team win. If it’s taking me running the ball 70 times a game I’m ready for it.”
Crowe said he hoped it doesn’t come to that.
But even Crowe said 37 carries -- the second most by a JSU back in program history -- is way out of line with his thinking.
“No back should carry it more than 30 times a game, but he’s a man about it,” Crowe said. “He can gain 1 or he can gain 7, it does not affect him. He is a grown up running back. Those kinds of guys you can extend it a little bit longer, but I don’t like that at all.”
The Gamecocks held the outright lead in the game only three times. They took the early 7-0 lead on Ealey’s first touchdown and didn’t lead again until Ealey’s third score with 11:33 left in the third quarter, 35-28.
Murray forced the game’s fourth tie with 4:04 left in the third quarter, then Griffin Thomas put the Gamecocks ahead for good with a 38-yard field goal with 8:51 to play.
But with Brockman’s ability to strike quickly, it wasn’t a comfortable lead.
The JSU defense made it stand up, though, with a fourth-down stop at midfield by Dustin Gayton, Rashod Byers’ interception and DiMetrio Ryson’s sack on the final frenetic play of the game to seal the milestone.
“I told those guys, and here’s the truth of it,” Crowe said. “The only way you win 100 games is you’re around a lot of good coaches and players. I guess I’m really lucky.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @JSUSports_Star.