It may also have blown Jacksonville State out of the FCS playoff picture.
Not because the Gamecocks lost a game, but the way they did.
One week after inserting themselves back into the playoff conversation with a one-sided win over a conference heavyweight, the Gamecocks themselves landed on the other side of a rout Saturday, losing to No. 2-ranked Eastern Illinois 52-14.
The Panthers (10-1, 7-0) jumped on the Gamecocks (8-3, 4-3) early and never let up. They had the Gamecocks down 35-0 in the first quarter, scoring on all five possessions in the quarter -- all with the 25-mph wind -- and opened a 38-7 halftime lead.
“That was the thing we were worried about,” JSU coach Bill Clark said. “The thing you probably had to understand and only knew if you were here was what that wind did in that first quarter. That’s why we wanted it so bad.
“They played with the wind the first quarter. We still had to stop them, but it basically takes your passing game away. If you look at it by quarters, what were we down 35-0. We needed to match them and we just couldn’t match their points when we had the wind.”
Clark said earlier in the week he hoped the NCAA playoff selection committee would take into account the way a team was playing at the end of the season when it doled out bids for the 24-team field. That was when the Gamecocks had won three in a row convincingly coming out of their open date and just blasted Eastern Kentucky.
JSU still can finish 9-3 with a win over Southeast Missouri in its final regular-season game, but what happened Saturday can’t help them.
The Panthers, meanwhile, locked up their second straight outright Ohio Valley Conference title, the league’s automatic bid to the FCS playoffs and probably no worse than a No. 2 national seed with home games throughout most of the postseason.
With Tennessee State beating Murray State in its final game of the year, the Gamecocks’ hopes now fall on the selection committee.
“I have no idea,” was Clark’s projection.
“I knew it was going to be hard anyway and that’s just saying the way things are," he said. "All we control is winning the next game. That’s the only thing we can control.”
The Gamecocks had held each of their previous three opponents to fewer than 300 yards of total offense, but the Panthers, the nation’s No. 1 team in total and scoring offense, rolled for 595 yards Saturday. Most of it came uncharacteristically on a school-record 413 yards rushing. The last team to rush for more than 350 yards against the Gamecocks was Georgia Southern, which went for 493 in 2002.
The Gamecocks, meanwhile, managed only 253 total yards. They were 8-of-22 passing.
Much of the attention this week focused on Panthers quarterback Tony Garoppolo and receiver Erik Lora, but it was running back Shepard Little who inflicted the most damage on the Gamecocks.
The redshirt sophomore rushed for 245 yards on 26 carries and accounted for 274 yards between his rushing, receiving and passing. He scored the scored the Panthers’ first three touchdowns -- on runs of 3 and 37 yards and an 18-yard pass from Garoppolo -- then lobbed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Garoppolo to make it 28-0 with 3:22 left in the quarter.
His 94 yards rushing in the first quarter was more than twice JSU’s total production in the period.
Garoppolo, who came into the game having rewritten many of the OVC passing records, still threw for 169 yards on 15-of-24 passing. But it was the second game in a row -- and only two in coach Dino Babers’ two years at the helm -- the Panthers had more yards rushing that passing.
“The wind dictated some of it, but they were playing the toughest defense to pass against,” Babers said.
The Panthers’ fifth touchdown of the quarter came on a 53-yard run by Jimmy Lera that had JSU safety Brandon Bender simply turning his palms up incredulously as Lera ran through an open field. The 38 points EIU scored in the first half were more than the Gamecocks had given up in an entire game this season and their last three games combined.
“I think their main goal was to pass the ball and as good as our corners are that forced them to get to the run early and they had a lot of success doing it,” JSU cornerback Rashad Byers said. “We wanted to take that passing game away and we did that, but they just damaged us with the run.”
The Gamecocks eventually found a way to slow down the Panthers, but by then it was way too late, especially with the way their offense struggled against the wind. They couldn’t pass and running it was just too slow to make any progress.
“Their running backs were just doing an excellent job of running the ball and seeing the openings when they were there,” JSU nose Caleb Lawrence said. “There was nothing much we could really do about it that first quarter. When we had time to figure out what was going on we adjusted and it showed our adjustments worked.”
The Gamecocks' offense, meanwhile, struggled to get anything going. Playing into the wind, they found it difficult to pass, and EIU didn’t give them much on the ground. The ground game, however, was stifled in the first half with only 37 yards on 21 carries. Two long sacks on Shortell didn’t help.
DaMarcus James did break the school single-season record for touchdowns when he scored on a 1-yard run early in the fourth quarter, but that was on the only time he found the end zone. He now has 20 touchdowns for the year.
Eli Jenkins was the Gamecocks’ leading rusher with 97 yards. James finished with 80 yards on 20 carries. Max Shortell delivered the Gamecocks’ other touchdown on a 22-yard pass to Anthony Johnson with 6:35 left in the half. Shortell was 8-of-16 passing for 98 yards.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.