JSU chatt sights

Jacksonville State’s John Grass greets fans as he goes through Gamecock Walk before the Chattanooga vs JSU NCAA football game at JSU's Burgess-Snow Field at JSU Stadium. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

JACKSONVILLE — For the first time since 2005, Jacksonville State has a top-five team visiting Burgess-Snow Field.

Eastern Washington, ranked fourth in the latest STATS FCS poll, will play at No. 17 Jacksonville State on Saturday at 3 p.m. This is part of a two-game series agreed upon by the two schools in 2017. JSU will visit Eastern Washington in 2021.

"FCS matchups don't get any better than that during the year," JSU coach John Grass said Monday during his regular weekly news conference. "I think you need to play these type games. They prepare you for conference play, and it prepares you for playoffs. Anytime you put your team in this type of situation and environment, it's really good.

"I'm glad we got the first one at home. I don't know if I'll be saying that in a couple of years when we got to go out there."

In 2005, JSU hosted then-No. 2 Furman in its opener and lost 37-35. Since moving up to Division I in 1995, the Gamecocks are 1-8 at home against top-five teams. The lone win was against then-No. 3 Northwestern State 19-10 in 2002.

JSU and Eastern Washington met in 2013 in the FCS quarterfinals. Eastern Washington hosted that game and won 35-24.

Grass was offensive coordinator for that JSU team, and Eastern Washington's head coach, Aaron Best, served as offensive coordinator for the Eagles that year, too.

"They're very, very similar to then," Grass said. "The base system is pretty much identical. They've changed and adapted. Different quarterback, but this one plays very similar."

The offense is expected to be strong again for Eastern Washington, with quarterback Eric Barriere leading the way.

JSU cornerback Yul Gowdy says the 6-foot-0, 200-pound Barriere reminds him of Kyler Murray, the Heisman Trophy winner last season at Oklahoma. Barriere took over in the sixth game last year when the starter was hurt, and Barriere led Eastern Washington to the FCS championship Game. The Eagles fell to North Dakota State.

"They always play at a high level, and that's what we always try to do, play at a high level," Gowdy said. "It's going to be a great game."

Barriere ranks third in the FCS in passing yardage with 733 through two games. JSU's Zerrick Cooper is first with 749.

"They've got 10 out of 11 starters back on offense, four out of five on the offensive line," Grass said. "The quarterback makes them go. They don't have a standout wide receiver — they're all really, really good. Defensively, they lost some guys, but they've got some starters back and some guys back who played a lot of games. They're really good on defense."

Playing ranked non-conference teams at home hasn't been unusual since Grass took over the program in 2014. This is the third FCS-ranked non-conference foe to visit JSU for a regular-season game in the last four years. JSU beat then-No. 17 Coastal Carolina in 2016 and No. 16 Liberty in 2017. Before those two games, the last FCS-ranked non-conference opponent to come to JSU for a regular-season game was Furman in 2005.

JSU also has hosted seven ranked non-conference teams in the playoffs since 2014, including wins over Chattanooga, Charleston Southern, Sam Houston State and East Tennessee State and losses to Sam Houston State, Youngstown State and Kennesaw State.

"It's definitely going to be exciting," receiver Daniel Byrd said. "Eastern Washington is very consistent in what they do. As far as the national recognition, we're just trying to focus on the game. All that is for everybody on the outside."

Sports Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.