TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Maybe Jacksonville State football had its 2020 in 2019.
Coming off its first playoff-free season since 2012, JSU roared to a 14-point lead over Atlantic Coast Conference member Florida State, led at halftime and into the third quarter.
Florida State found its Power 5 conference groove under backup quarterback Jordan Travis and won 41-24.
So went JSU’s belated season-opener in the season of COVID-19. The Ohio Valley Conference postponed conference play to the spring but allowed teams to play non-conference games in the fall. Saturday’s game in Doak Campbell Stadium marked the first of JSU’s four fall games, all in October.
Florida State came in reeling from an 0-2 start that included a 52-10 loss to Miami and made a quarterback change, starting Tate Rodemaker.
In a year soaked with bad news, JSU (0-1) threatened to soak FSU’s 2020 more before a pandemic-thinned crowd of 13,589. In the end, JSU coach John Grass felt more soaking from 2020’s quirks.
“My biggest concern coming into the ballgame, I’ve never had to do that in my career, and it was done in a pandemic, which makes it more difficult,” he said. “Most of our folks have heard me talk about this, but that was their third ballgame, and that was our first ballgame.
“When a team plays two ballgames before you play a game, what happened to us in the second half kind of happens.”
JSU got off to a 14-0 lead by 5:08 of the first quarter thanks to its defense and offense. Safety Kolbi Fuqua undercut a Rodemaker pass for a 13-yard pick-6 on FSU’s first possession, and Zerrick Cooper engineered a six-play, 69-yard drive leading to Josh Samuel’s 20-yard touchdown run to put the Gamecocks up 14-0.
The Seminoles (1-2) replaced Rodemaker with the more dual-threat Jordan Travis, who brought a read-option look that forced more JSU defenders to play the run. It opened up Travis’ 41-yard touchdown pass to Keyshawn Helton to get FSU on the board, but JSU had an answer.
Cooper’s 41-yard bomb on the run to Logan McVay set up Cooper’s 1-yard sneak for a 21-7 JSU lead at 4:30 of the second quarter.
Travis’ 1-yard touchdown run just before halftime capped a 75-yard drive, but JSU took a 21-14 lead into the locker room.
Travis kept it going in the second half, leading touchdown drives of 63 and 78 yards to open the third quarter. FSU tied the game 21-21 on La’Damian Webb’s 15-yard run and, following a 21-yard Alen Karajic field goal, took a 28-24 lead on Lawrence Toafili’s 13-yard run at 5:41 of the third.
JSU’s defense never solved Travis-helmed FSU’s offense and appeared to wear down trying.
“The depth issues, along with that being their third game, kind of caught up with us in the second half,” Grass said. “We had some cramping issues. We had some guys going down up front and inside. Those big guys get fatigued.”
JSU showed reasons to believe that its split, 2020-21 season will look better than its 6-6 disappointment in 2019.
Here are three things we learned:
1. JSU’s defense is improved, especially rushing the quarterback.
JSU’s defense managed just 14 sacks in 2019, but got two Saturday and pressured both FSU quarterbacks consistently.
Travis’ mobility made him more effective. The read game look be brought thinned out JSU’s secondary, but JSU made him throw on the run and tuck and run.
JSU’s pressure helps the back end. Fuqua’s pick-6 Saturday tied JSU’s 2019 total, with Marlon Bridges getting the Gamecocks’ lone interception return for a score last season.
“The first half, we didn’t give up explosive plays, which allowed us to have a lead,” Grass said. “We should’ve went in with a 21-7 lead instead of a 21-14 lead. ...
“We just could not get off the field in the second half. Their size and depth kind of caught up with us defensively, and that’s a bad position to be in.”
2. JSU’s new receivers look capable, but big-play capacity of old didn’t show.
OK, so they’re not Josh Pearson, Jamari Hester, K.J. Stepherson or Daniel Byrd. Outside of McVay’s adjustment on the bomb from Cooper, the big-play passes weren’t there, not like last year.
JSU’s other explosive pass plays were a 28-yarder to running back Uriah West in the third quarter and a 29-yarder to tight end Trae Barry in the fourth.
But JSU’s receiver corps proved solid. Dave Russell III caught seven passes for 74 yards, and the Gamecocks made the possession-friendly catches.
One thing appears certain, however, for 2020. Cooper will have to mix it up more, with tight ends and running backs. He threw to 10 different players Saturday.
“We came out with a good mindset, as far as throwing the ball,” said Cooper, who completed 22 of 30 passes for 232 yards. “We’ve got to continue to grow with that chemistry and that bond. Right now, we’re off to a good start.”
3. JSU’s offensive line improved, kept Cooper standing.
Remember that brutal 2019 opener, when Southeastern Louisiana sacked Cooper six times and would’ve sacked him more, but for Cooper’s mobility?
Florida State sacked Cooper twice in JSU’s 2020 opener, both when an FSU lead forced Cooper to pass more in the second half. That’s a major breakthrough after JSU quarterbacks suffered 29 sacks in 2019.
Clearly, experience made JSU’s offensive line better after an inexperienced line took a beating last season.
“They’re a lot better,” Cooper said. “Last year, they were kind of young. They didn’t have a lot of experience.
“I don’t want to say the COVID kind of helped us, but at the same time, but it got us together. We got that chemistry together. I trust them, and they trust me. I’m just happy to get that bond and move forward.”