FLORENCE — Add a new title for Jacksonville State’s Zerrick Cooper … Mr. Efficiency.
The senior quarterback threw for 244 yards, rushed for 46, accounted for three touchdowns and tied a JSU legend as the Gamecocks dominated possession in the second half and beat North Alabama 24-17 at Braly Municipal Stadium on Saturday.
JSU upped to 2-1 in its abbreviated, four-game fall season. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the Ohio Valley Conference to move its league season to the spring, but the OVC allowed teams to play non-conference games in the fall.
JSU is slated to finish the fall part of its schedule Friday, at Florida International.
UNA led JSU 10-7 after dominating possession time in the first half but fell to 0-2 Saturday.
JSU went without seventh-year head coach John Grass, who announced Thursday that he tested positive for COVID-19.
“I feel fine,” said Grass, made available by phone after the game. “I’m good. I wish I could’ve been there today. I’m not having any problems.”
Grass said he tested negative Monday, but his positive test Thursday “was just shocking.” He said he had “no idea” where or how he contracted the virus.
“Probably, at some point in time, it’s going to go through most everybody,” he said. “You’ve just got to hope that your body fights it off and handles it right.
“It’s something to be taking seriously. I know people are in the hospital.”
Long-time assistant coach Jimmy Ogle ran the Gamecocks’ late-week preparations and game-day operations.
“This wasn’t pretty,” Ogle said, “But in 2020, with COVID football, and all of the things that entails, we just had to keep fighting and keep fighting and keep fighting and find a way to win a game.
“Unbelievable job by our kids, and we hate that the head coach was at home. We wanted so bad for him to be with us.”
Here are three things we learned:
1. Cooper firms up place in JSU history
Cooper’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Quan Charleston in the second quarter gave Cooper 61 touchdown passes for his two-plus seasons as JSU’s starting quarterback, tying Ed Lett for tops in school history.
It was also Cooper’s first touchdown pass on the pandemic-shortened, four-game fall season and came two quarters into JSU’s third game. It was also Charleston’s first career touchdown catch.
“It feels pretty good,” Cooper said. “I look forward to eventually breaking his record. If not, I’ll be happy where I got to be, up there with Ed Lett himself.
“I know he’s a legend at Jacksonville, and it just means a lot.”
As much as JSU followers keep a watch on Cooper’s touchdown passes, they also keep a watch on his health. Backup quarterback Zion Webb (knee), who typically gets an early series, was out.
Webb hopped off the field during JSU’s 34-28 victory over Mercer last week.
Redshirt freshman Aaron Graham would’ve been JSU’s next quarterback up, had Cooper been injured.
2. Cooper’s keepers
Cooper has put up big passing numbers at JSU, but he’s gotten it done with his feet more this season. His two rushing touchdowns Saturday give him five for the season to one touchdown pass.
That gives Cooper 17 rushing touchdowns for his JSU career, and he’s responsible for 78 total touchdowns for his career. He’s second to Eli Jenkins’ total of 89.
“Coop is settling in, and if it ain’t there, run it,” Ogle said. “That’s a whole lot safer than trying to force the ball, and when those opportunities are there, taking advantage of it.”
Cooper hit two big passes to tight end Trae Barry to set up Cooper’s second touchdown run of the day, which put JSU up 21-17 in the third quarter. Barry caught five passes for 105 yards on the day.
3. Playing keepaway works
UNA held the ball for 22:26 of a 30-minute first half, running 44 plays to JSU’s 20.
That allowed Cooper to get off exactly eight passes in one half, and JSU took just 120 total yards into intermission. Oh, and UNA led 10-7.
The Lions had a 19-play scoring drive to start the game, leading to Sam Contomo’s 19-yard field goal. JSU helped with penalties for hands to the face and defensive holding.
UNA finished the half with a 12-play scoring drive, ending in Parker Driggers’ 1-yard Wildcat run.
JSU returned the favor with a 14-play, 80-yard drive ending in Cooper’s 1-yard sneak for a 14-10 JSU lead in the third quarter.
JSU also ran 10 plays on the way to Alen Karajic’s 36-yard field goal to extend the Gamecocks’ lead to 24-17 at 10:23 of the fourth.
JSU ran 11 plays on its final possession, chewing all but the final 11 seconds, and nearly caught the Lions in total plays. UNA finished with a 65-63 edge.
“We eliminated mistakes (in the second half),” said JSU linebacker D.J. Coleman, who led the Gamecocks with nine tackles, including a sack and 2.5 tackles for loss. “We basically hunkered down and played football the way you play football.”