There was despair over a dreadful start in which the offense got shut out, the exhilaration of bouncing back to take a seemingly safe lead and the tension of a nail-biting finish. On top of that, the game was delayed about 90 minutes by bad weather.
In the end, Clark made a little bit of Jacksonville State history as the Gamecocks held on to beat Alabama State 24-22 in the season opener for both teams.
Clark became only the fourth JSU head coach in school history to win his first game with the program and first since Jim Fuller in 1977, but it wasn’t easy.
The Gamecocks didn’t score in the first half, rallied behind the backup quarterback to open a 24-9 lead, then needed a last-minute interception to preserve the win.
“It was beyond phew,” Clark said. “It was so disappointing early. There were so many plays offensively that we had if we get the ball pitched. We felt we knew what was coming. We had a lot of the calls we wanted in the first half and just didn’t get it pitched.
“The first half, I was so proud of the defense. They kept us in the game. That’s why we work them so hard; look at where they came from, where we were before, and then there was the big turnaround by our offense in the second half.”
The biggest secret throughout Clark’s first JSU preseason camp didn’t get answered until the Gamecocks’ first snap of the season with 1:13 gone in the game.
Redshirt freshman Eli Jenkins opened the game for the Gamecocks and played the first five series without much distinction. Jenkins said he learned he would be the starter only about four days ago and earned it, Clark said, by “being better” since the spring.
“He kept improving and Max (Shortell) kept improving,” Clark said. “I still feel good about it. Eli had a few pitches he could’ve made better. The good news is he’s a redshirt freshman, we got him going and he’ll get another chance. Max came in and he was still a little rusty, but when he got going … he had a really solid night.”
The Gamecocks had 62 yards of offense with him in the game. He completed 4 of 7 passes for 24 yards. The running game never did get on track, finishing with 108 yards net.
“Getting the start was a great opportunity,” Jenkins said. “It could have been any one of us. They chose me and I went with it.
“I can’t really say I was really nervous – they went out when the delay was here – although I felt like I should’ve been. It was kind of frustrating at first, though, because we couldn’t get anything going.”
There was trouble from the start. In Jenkins’ first play as a starter – Clark’s first offensive call as head coach -- the Gamecocks offense was called for delay of game. Clark was concerned whether the clock was stopped correctly during the change of possession.
Shortell, the most experienced quarterback on the JSU roster who transferred in the spring, went in with 11 minutes left in the half -- right after ASU kicker Bobby Wenzig’s 42-yard field goal opened the scoring -- and played the rest of the game.
The Minnesota transfer directed the Gamecocks to four scoring drives and 24 third-quarter points. He finished with 13 completions in 23 attempts for 216 yards and two touchdowns.
He threw his two touchdown passes 66 seconds apart – the fastest time between JSU offensive touchdowns since Marques Ivory threw for two touchdowns in an eight-second stretch against Murray State in 2010.
“At the beginning of camp I didn’t do well enough, but in the last couple weeks I really fine-tuned my game and got to where I need to be,” Shortell said. “I felt once I got in the game I knew I was going to be ready to go, be on point.
“Coming in late in the game that’s kind of what I’ve done my whole career. I don’t like it at all, but you’ve got to trust the coaches. They’ve got a plan.”
Clark said Shortell will be the starter going into Monday practice, but the ultimate decision of who starts the home opener against Jacksonville University will lie with the developments of the practice week.
“As long as he keeps that, we feel like we can go with two guys,” Clark said. “I think it’s a good thing to have. You weren’t getting it done, we went with the other guy. (Jenkins) wasn’t the worst, it was just we needed something different. He’ll learn from it and hopefully Max will too.”
Behind Shortell, the Gamecocks opened a 24-9 lead with 1:32 left in the third quarter. But the Hornets made a game of it in the fourth quarter by scoring two short touchdowns off a Shortell interception and Telvin Brown’s fumbled punt.
The Hornets were in position to tie the game with a two-point conversion, but Jarrett Neely’s pass to quarterback Daniel Duhart fell short.
It was a two-point game when ASU took over at its 25 with 2:48 to play. The Hornets didn’t have any time outs left, but all they had to do was give kicker Bobby Wenzig a shot.
They had gotten to the JSU 20, then imploded. A delay penalty pushed them back five yards. Brent Tolson and Ketrick Wolfe sacked Duhart on the next play, then, with less than a minute to go, Tolson ended the threat with 48 seconds left when he intercepted Duhart.
The heat and humidity had taken so much of a toll on the Gamecocks, they were playing that final drive with several third-teamers in the game.
“They had us in a tough situation,” Tolson said. “For some reason the coach threw the ball and we made them pay for it.
“Coach (Duwan) Walker called a great play. We did the play to perfection and I happened to get a pick on the play.”
The defense carried the Gamecocks all day. The two touchdowns ASU scored came on one- or two-play possessions of less than 10 yards after turnovers. Until then, the only points they allowed were three Wenzig field goals.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.