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Jacksonville State vs. Mercer: game outlook, what to know, and a prediction

jsu eku action

Jacksonville State's Zerrick Cooper gets tackled by Eastern Kentucky’s Josiah Ezirim during the JSU vs EKU OVC football game. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

Pregame analysis as Jacksonville State hosts Mercer on Saturday:

The game

What: Jacksonville State (0-1) vs. Mercer (0-0)

Rankings: JSU received votes in the STATS-FCS poll; Mercer is not ranked.

When: 2 p.m. Central time, Saturday

Where: Burgess-Snow Field at JSU Stadium. (24,000).

Line: JSU by 6.5, according to Sportsbookreview.com.

Radio/Online: WLJS-FM, 91.9 (Jacksonville); WRBZ-FM, 95.5 (Montgomery) WVOK-FM, 97.9 (Oxford); 98.1 (Gadsden); WKXX-FM, 102.9 (Attalla); Online: ESPN+

Four-down territory

1. Statement made: With a 6-6 season and no playoff appearance last season, JSU needed to confirm 2019 as an anomaly in the opener at Florida State and did. JSU held leads of 14-0 and 21-7 before leading their Power 5 opponent 21-14 at halftime, and the Gamecocks led 24-21 in the third quarter. The Gamecocks were one, near-miss interception away from making it a one-score game in the fourth quarter and had a chance to score on their final offensive possession.

2. 2020 Coop de Ville II: Senior quarterback Zerrick Cooper continues to be the biggest individual factor in JSU’s on-field fortunes and played an efficient game at Florida State, completing 22 of 30 passes for 232 yards. Depending on how NFL scouts view him, Saturday’s game could mark his last in JSU Stadium. The Gamecocks play three of their four fall games on the road, and Cooper might not be around for the spring conference season.

3. Run the ball: Mercer’s defense gave up lots of rushing yards in 2019, and JSU’s rushing offense could stand to give Cooper more help. The Gamecocks rushed for a net 63 yards at Florida State. On the upset, JSU was able to run in the red zone, including Josh Samuel’s 20-yard touchdown run and Cooper’s 1-yard TD sneak. Also, JSU running backs caught five passes at FSU.

4. Wingin’ it: Mercer brings a wing-T offense to Burgess-Snow Field. It’s not the triple option, which JSU saw against Kennesaw State in 2018, and Mercer throws out of the wing-T. The Bears averaged 216.5 passing yards and 142.3 rushing yards a game in 2019.

Key matchup

JSU offensive line against FSU’s D-line: JSU’s mostly-new wide receiver corps against Mercer’s secondary. One thing notably lacking in JSU’s offensive attack at Florida State, compared to last year, was big plays in the passing game. JSU got plenty from Josh Pearson, Jamari Hester and crew, but Logan McVay’s 41-yarder on a scramble-drill takeoff Saturday marked the only explosive play by a wide receiver. Tight end Trae Barry caught a 29-yard pass, and running back Uriah West turned a quick pass into a 28-yard gain. Showing that big-play capacity will be a key in opening JSU’s running game.

Player of the week

Dave Russell III, redshirt sophomore, 6-foot-0, 203 pounds, wide receiver: JSU lost its top four receivers from last season, but it looks like former Oxford standout Dave Russell III leads the replacements. The redshirt sophomore caught seven passes for 74 yards at Florida State.

By the numbers

1: Number of touchdown passes Cooper needs to tie Ed Lett for JSU’s all-time record. Cooper and Lett are the only two players in school history with 50 or more TD passes.

4: JSU’s current losing streak.

472.5: Yards a game allowed by Mercer in 2019, including 269.2 rushing.

Prediction

This is JSU’s lone home game of 2020 and first since the Gamecocks’ season-ending, 29-23 loss to Eastern Kentucky last season. It comes 13 days shy of a year since JSU’s last victory at home, a 14-12 nail-biter against Murray State on Oct. 23, 2019. Safe to say, the Gamecocks want to leave their home crowd, limited by COVID-19 concerns, with a masked smile.

Jacksonville State 24, Mercer 20

Sports Writer Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter: @jmedley_star.

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