The Gamecocks found one in Damarcus James.
The powerful sophomore who’s as hard as a transfer truck to tackle came out of the locker room running like a semi Saturday, and it sparked the Gamecocks to a big third quarter that carried them to a 38-23 win over Austin Peay, which secured a record-setting 10th straight winning season in the program
James didn’t score a touchdown in the second half, but he did run for 142 of his 149 yards in the half — 75 in the third quarter — to bring JSU back from an unfocused start.
“He’s a very physical runner who just advances the ball,” JSU coach Jack Crowe said. “That boy, now, he’s serious about what he does on the football field; he don’t take nothing lightly.
“But he was the guy I thought could create the physicalness in the running game, and I thought we should be more physical than they were. We just had to play that way. When ‘Coot’s’ in there you just become a more physical football team. He did set the tempo for the second half.”
The Gamecocks (6-4, 5-3 OVC) needed something.
James fumbled away their first possession inside the 5 on his first carry of the day. The Gamecocks ultimately fell behind a team that hadn’t beaten an NCAA team this year 14-0.
Actually, they were lucky to be trailing only 16-14 at halfitme, and it caused a lot of soul searching. If the Gamecocks didn’t pull out this one, they would have been hard-pressed to secure that winning season next week at Florida. Crowe said he put in his two cents, then let the seniors do the rest.
“We went into the locker rom and they were up two points on us and we really know they’re not two points better than us,” senior running back Washaun Ealey said. “We went in there, talked to each other, made adjustments, motivated each other, talked a little trash to get some emotion into the game, and I really felt like guys came out and stepped up to the challenge.”
James in particular. He carried the first two plays of the third quarter and took it for 25 and 13 yards. He had a 60-yard burst in the fourth quarter.
“They just told us to come and play hard,” James said. “When they give me the ball, I have to answer.”
The 149 yards matched James’ career high, set Sept. 29 against Southeast Missouri. It was his fifth 100-yard game of the season and second in a row after missing two games with a concussion.
Behind James’ powerful running, the Gamecocks scored touchdowns on all three of their possessions in the third quarter, turning that 16-14 deficit into a 35-16 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Marques Ivory finished James’ strong start to the opening drive with a 10-yard touchdown run to give JSU its first lead. Ealey had the other two scores, but in a rather unconventional way, for him. He caught two touchdown passes — a 10-yarder from Ivory and a 27-yarder from Coty Blanchard. The Gamecocks had 204 net yards in the quarter.
Ealey was the Gamecocks’ leading receiver with four catches. Alan Bonner caught two balls for 91 yards, including a 71-yarder that set up JSU’s first touchdown, a 7-yard run by James.
“I think Washaun is a great guy to throw the ball to,” Crowe said. “Do we do it enough? I’d like to get it to him more.”
The Gamecocks might have had what seemed like a comfortable lead going into the fourth quarter, but the Governors (1-9, 0-7) were moving the ball well enough to be troublesome.
Peay had more success against JSU than any team it played this season, even NAIA Culver-Stockton in its first victory of the season last week. The Govs amassed 497 yards on 86 snaps — 30 more than the Gamecocks. Quarterback Jake Ryan threw for 375 yards and three touchdowns while setting Peay records for completions (40) and attempts (61).
JSU had only seven snaps in the first quarter. Peay, meanwhile, put together touchdown drives of 96 and 68 yards to open its 14-0 lead, with Ryan throwing scoring strikes to Mikhail Creech and Devin Stark.
The Gamecocks did rally to tie it at 14 — on touchdown runs by James and Washaun Ealey — and avoided falling behind when Peay kicker Stephen Stansell missed a 30-yard field goal with 2:42 left in the half. But they couldn’t avoid falling behind less than a minute later when a bad snap sailed over punter Hamish MacInnes’ head and the Aussie freshman had the poise to push the ball out of the end zone for just a safety.
The Gamecocks managed to take that margin into the dressing room when freshman Erick Butler blocked a Stansell field-goal attempt on the final play of the half.
“We were down two points and I was just trying to do my part to help the team so we wouldn’t fall down by more,” Butler said. “I figured if I blocked the kick it would help us move forward and we could have momentum in the second half.”
Those two missed attempts proved important for the way Peay played in the red zone in the fourth quarter while it tried to rally. On consecutive possessions late in the game, the Govs went for it on fourth down instead of trotting out Stansell for another field-goal attempt.
The Gamecocks have had a winning season every year they’ve been in the Ohio Valley Conference. They were 5-0 at home for the third time since 2004. The victory also made this senior class one of three with 30 career wins since the program left Division II.
“We were able to close out the home season with a win for our seniors and, really, I think a homestand this year that we’re proud of,” Crowe said. “I’m happy with the win and certainly happy with winning five at home.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star. Editor's note: This story has been modified since it was originally published to correct the score of the game.