JACKSONVILLE — Jacksonville State’s lone home football game in a pandemic year turned into a Delta downpour Saturday.
The Marching Southerners sprawled over five JSU Stadium sections, a visible impact of COVID-19-necessitated social distancing. Band members stood draped in clear rain ponchos, a visible bow to what remained of Hurricane Delta, as it passed over the area.
The marching band never took the field, so good thing the home team refused to yield. The Gamecocks scored 24 unanswered points to take the lead in the first half, and Nicario Harper’s 64-yard fumble return for a touchdown helped them hold off Mercer 34-28.
So went the lone fall home game for JSU. The pandemic prompted the Ohio Valley Conference to move its conference season to spring, but teams were allowed to play non-conference games in the fall.
Saturday’s game was the second of JSU’s four fall games. The Gamecocks lost at Florida State last week and will play at North Alabama and at Florida International over the next two weeks.
“So, the sun comes out, now that the game is over,” JSU coach John Grass said, noting the irony. “I don’t know where that was during the game, but I would’ve liked to have seen some of that during the game.
“Five out of seven home games last year it rained, and the only home game we’ve got this year, it rained, but just to get a win in a driving rain storm, you’ll take it any way you can get it.”
JSU (1-1) led 27-14 at halftime, but a wet ball helped Mercer (0-1) get back into the game. With JSU driving to start the third quarter, quarterback Zerrick Cooper drew back to throw and lost the ball.
Mercer recovered at JSU’s 42-yard line, setting up Harrison Frost’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Deondre Johnson to bring the Bears within 27-21.
Mercer appeared on its way to another score in the fourth quarter, but Frost bobbled then recovered a snap on third down and short. Add a delay penalty, and Mercer had to punt from JSU’s 40.
Mercer started its next possession on JSU’s 42 but safety Kolbi Fuqua jarred the ball loose from tight end Andrew May. Harper recovered and raced down Mercer’s sideline for the cushioning score.
Mercer closed within 34-28 on Frost’s 30-yard touchdown pass to Ethan Dirrim with 51 seconds left, but Logan McVay recovered the Mercer’s onsides kick. JSU knelt the clock away.
The day’s deluge wrought a deluge of eight combined fumbles, three resulting in turnovers. Mercer fumbled six times.
Grass called winning the only home game of 2020 “really important.”
“It was just great to get a win for sure in the only home game,” he said. “I wish we had a few more at home, but I guess we’re just road warriors this year.”
Here are three things we learned:
1. JSU has a running game
JSU has been a pass-oriented team in Cooper’s two-plus seasons as starting quarterback, but the Gamecocks showed run strength against Mercer. The Gamecocks had more rushing yards (158) than passing yards (139).
All three of JSU’s first-half touchdowns were runs … running back Pat Jackson over the top for two yards, Cooper’s 1-yard sneak and Cooper’s 9-yard scramble, after the whole right side of Mercer’s defense cleared out.
Cooper had the niftiest run of the half, taking off from the pocket, faking a pitch to running back Uriah West then finishing off the play, to the Mercer 9-yard line, to set up Cooper’s touchdown sneak.
Grass called JSU’s running game improvement “big time.”
“Our O-line is a year more mature,” Grass said. “They were so young last year. Those guys are playing better now than they did at any time last year.”
2. JSU back in the field goal business
Among other things, 2019 will be remembered as the year of nope for JSU field-goal kicking. The Gamecocks typically went for it on fourth down, rather than trot Bryant Wallace out for field goals past 30 yards.
It proved fatal in a couple of JSU’s losses.
Saturday saw JSU kick at normal distances. Freshman Alen Karajic delivered from 38 and 43 yards in the first half, sparing the Gamecocks any need to go for it on fourth-and-four from the Mercer 20 and fourth-and-23 from the Mercer 26.
“I have full confidence in Alen, and he’s kicking the ball really good,” Grass said. “We had to hold him out a little this week because he had a hip flexor going on, and it kind of flared up on him before the game, so he didn’t kick off, so I was worried about him, but he hit two long field goals.
“It was very important to get points out of those two drives.”
JSU went for it on fourth and two from Mercer’s 34 in the second quarter, rather than kick a 51-yard field goal into the wind and a driving rain. The Gamecocks converted and later scored on Cooper’s 1-yard sneak.
3. JSU still has adventures in kickoff coverage
Mercer opened the game with Deondre Johnson’s 100-yard kickoff return, catching the ball at the right hash mark and never deviating from the middle of the field. From that point on, JSU kicked short and out of bounds twice.
JSU’s kickoff team gained some redemption late in the second quarter, when Markail Benton recovered Al Wooten II’s fumble to set up Cooper’s touchdown scramble to give JSU a 27-14 lead at halftime.
As for the opening kickoff, Bryant Wallace had to handle kickoffs because of Karajic’s hip issue.
“The location of the kick wasn’t bad, it was that it just didn’t have a lot of hang time,” Grass said. “We line-drived it a little bit.
“To be honest, it was probably my fault. That guy is a good returner. He returned a couple last year, in the SoCon.”