JACKSONVILLE — John Grass promised he would sleep much better.
He should, especially after his Jacksonville State football team rebounded from an opening-week upset to beat Chattanooga 41-20 on Saturday.
Not only did the Gamecocks win, they showed a heck of a lot of improvement over the 35-14 loss at Southeastern Louisiana nine days earlier. That game looked as bad as the score — maybe worse.
JSU was a nine-point favorite but got bushwhacked on its trip to Louisiana. To add insult to injury, they had to bus back overnight to campus, unload and then head to Friday classes.
That one was so bad that even the players, especially senior Marlon Bridges, noticed how their own fans were trashing them on social media.
That game hurt, and it led to at least one or two sleepless nights for Grass, his staff and his players.
The Gamecocks wanted some redemption Saturday against Chattanooga, and they achieved it. The win soothes plenty, but how they won helps, too.
JSU came out motivated, aggressive and ready. Before we knew it, Jacksonville State had a 21-3 lead. Chattanooga rallied, but that didn't spoil the day. Instead, it gave the Gamecocks a chance to finish strong in a meaningful way.
The defense rebounded by not allowing Chattanooga past midfield in the fourth quarter. Leading only 27-20, JSU drove 76 yards on 15 plays to score a touchdown. After the defense stopped Chattanooga on fourth down on the Mocs' 34, JSU rammed it down Chattanooga's collective throat for another touchdown.
"Much better," Grass said when he arrived on the sixth floor at JSU Stadium for his postgame news conference.
"We looked like the Gamecocks this week," he added.
Grass looked happy, a bit tired, and relieved. That opening loss looked like it wore on him. I don't think he expected that opener to go like it did.
During the week, he talked to his players about having the will to win, and they got on board with that. Even though it was hot and at times miserable, JSU had a good week of practice.
It's gameday that counts, however, and Grass' team looked much better. The offensive line gave quarterback Zerrick Cooper the time to throw that he didn't have at Southeastern Louisiana.
That's especially big because it's hard to imagine any team in the OVC has a defense that can match up with Cooper and his group of receivers. Cooper can throw it wherever he wants, and it seems like all of his receivers have long arms and great hands. Trae Barry, Jamari Hester, Josh Pearson and Daniel Byrd are proven, but newcomer K.J. Stepherson made the best catch of the day with his one-handed grab down the sideline.
But, Cooper needs help from his line, and against Chattanooga, he got it.
The defense still needs work, but it still looked good at times. The place-kicking needs to settle down, too. Grass said that for now, he probably won't try a kick whenever JSU is outside the 20-yard line. The other day, some of his kickers were trying 50-yarders. Grass told them not to bother because JSU probably will go for it on fourth down that far from the goal posts.
Still, there was improvement. Grass' young team responded. It responded in practice all week, and it responded Saturday against Chattanooga.
Over a nine-day span, the Gamecocks got better, and maybe that mattered as much to Grass as the win. After all, the win makes for a nice weekend, but the improvement gave Grass more confidence in his team's hunt for another Ohio Valley Conference championship.
Grass acknowledged that his team "didn't play perfect," but he called the improvement a "huge jump."
He really did looked relieved. He took that opening loss on his shoulders. He said it was on him, and it can't feel good when your fanbase responds essentially by saying, "Nice detective work, Sherlock."
He said he understands that. He said there's no "unconditional love" for coaches in this business.
He smiled at that and added, "You're only as good as your last win."
Before anyone should worry about him, Grass followed with the same glass-half-full attitude it seems he has so often: "I'm glad we've built a program at Jacksonville State where expectations are this high."