Football coaches are notoriously early risers, especially during the season, but even this was a little too early.
It was about 2:30 in the morning and while some who had reveled in the Gamecocks’ 68-10 dismantling of Eastern Kentucky might be just coming home, Clark was moving toward the door to start his day. Mrs. Coach looked up through sleepy eyes and wondered aloud where her husband was going at such an hour.
“Gotta go to work,” he said.
Playing the second-ranked team in the country with a nearly unstoppable offense will do that to a coach.
The 22nd-ranked Gamecocks (8-2, 4-2 Ohio Valley Conference), in the national polls this week for only the second time this season and first since Oct. 7, will be out to score another monumental win Saturday when they travel to No. 2 Eastern Illinois.
The Panthers (9-1, 6-0 OVC) have become the Oregon of the FCS with their fast-tempo, spread-the-field offense. (EIU coach Dino Babers would probably prefer you call it the Baylor, because he coached future Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III there and brought the Bears’ tendencies to his new job.)
Eastern Illinois ranks first in the FCS in scoring offense and total offense and are second in passing offense.
JSU defensive coordinator Duwan Walker can empathize with his boss’ early rising. In the wee hours of Sunday morning in another part of town, he was going through the same routine.
“These guys, it’s no secret they’re good,” Walker said. “We’re worried with any team at the beginning of the week. In my time of doing this, if you’re not worried at the beginning of the week you might be in trouble at the end of the week.
“These guys will have you worried no matter what time of the week it is. We’ll be going into Saturday morning still looking at things and making sure we feel good about what we’re doing.”
In his last year as South Alabama’s defensive coordinator, Clark grew accustomed to heading to the office before the milkman arrived at the door.
There was Tennessee-Martin that was leading the country in total offense. Then in his league there was a Louisiana-Monroe team that had beaten Arkansas and hung with Auburn. There was Troy, then Arkansas State. Every week it was a nightmare scenario for a fledgling FBS program.
“We were in the No. 1 offensive league in the whole country and you just couldn’t sleep,” he said. “You felt you had to be really good. You may be thinking they could score 70 on you, and we didn’t have the people everybody else was playing.”
The Gamecocks do, but that still might not be enough.
The Panthers, who can clinch the outright conference title with a win, can make a team look really bad if it doesn’t play well. They beat Eastern Kentucky 42-7 and Austin Peay 63-7 in consecutive weeks.
Walker said they’re capable of scoring “a whole lot more” than they have. They’ve scored at least 34 points in every game — 39 in a loss — and have passed 50 four times.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has rewritten the OVC passing record book and his favorite receiver, Erik Lora, is third on the FCS all-time receptions list. The Panthers are also third in rushing offense and first in scoring defense in league games. The average margin of their nine wins is 27 points.
“When you look at a team you look for weakness,” Walker said. “You don’t see weaknesses (in EIU). They’re going to make you cover every inch of the field, length and width. They’ll keep you up at night. If we have a weakness defensively, it’ll be exposed.
“This is one of the elite teams at our level, so it’s going to be a good test to see where we are overall as a program and defensively. This is going to be one of those games that will tell us where we are.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.