JSU’s most successful season as a Division I program -- and first under coach Bill Clark – ended in a 35-24 loss to No. 3 Eastern Washington in the FCS quarterfinals.
The Gamecocks’ fate turned dramatically in the final two minutes of the second quarter when quarterback Eli Jenkins twisted his left knee after a 13-yard gain. He didn’t play the rest of the game and needed a ride to the dressing room in an equipment cart when it was over.
The fear is a ligament issue, but Clark won’t engage in speculation.
“He gets looked at tomorrow,” Clark said in a phone interview from his home in Piedmont on Sunday. “We won’t know until tomorrow. Hopefully it’s not anything major.
“For him not to be able to go back, you’d think it’s a sprain, but we saw Max (Shortell) with that same bad sprain and he couldn’t go. We just don’t know yet.”
With Jenkins in the game, the Gamecocks (11-4) were matching Eastern Washington (12-2) score for score and battled to a 21-21 tie at halftime. Jenkins had rushed for 118 yards and threw for 127 more on 12-of-14 passing.
Shortell, who hadn’t played the previous three games because of a different injury, ran the offense the rest of the game. He completed 12 of 22 passes for 173 yards, but was intercepted twice. The second pick was a late throw over the middle that EWU linebacker Albert Havili returned 77 yards for a touchdown that killed JSU’s bid for a go-ahead score and extended the Eagles lead to 11 points.
The Gamecocks also had lost record-setting running back DaMarcus James (deep thigh bruise) and offensive tackle Adam Wright earlier in the game.
It’s not Clark’s nature to dwell on the what-ifs. He’s more of a it-was-let’s-move-on kind of guy.
But he acknowledged the injury to Jenkins changed the complexion of the game. At the very least it eliminated the quarterback’s threat as a runner.
“The what-ifs sound like an excuse and that’s why I always try to stay away from it,” Clark said. “The things that happened to us changed the course of the game.
“What if 3 (EWU quarterback Vernon Adams) got hurt at halftime? I just don’t want to be an excuse-maker, but we all know what was happening. They weren’t slowing us down yet. Other than the missed field goal (on their first possession), we scored every time we had the ball.”
Then after the Eagles scored on the first possession of the third quarter, Clark inserted first-year player Jaylen Hill in as an extra cornerback and the JSU defense held its ground. The Gamecocks didn’t give up another offensive touchdown and even came up with a big fourth-down sack on the drive before Shortell’s back-breaking pick.
“We were playing to win the game,” Clark said. “We got all those injuries and we’re still playing to win the game.
“We figured them out as much as you could. I felt we had them stopped and we were going to win the game.”
Even though there are no more games to play, these next few weeks are big for the JSU program. The mid-year signing period begins Wednesday and the Gamecocks are hoping to land between four and six players at various positions across the board.
Also, Clark, coming up on the one-year anniversary of his hiring Thursday, is expecting to meet with athletics director Warren Koegel for a season post-mortem as specified in his contract.
It promises to be a discussion about the future as opposed to the past.
“The big thing for me is what do we do to get better,” Clark said. “What do we do with our program to be a national program? That’s the only thing I want to talk about.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.