CHARLESTON, Ill. — Zion Webb found friendly hands from Ahmad Edwards, and the pair helped lift 12th-ranked Jacksonville State back up on the worst day for the Gamecocks’ defense since fall Saturday.
Webb and Edwards hooked up for two touchdown passes, and JSU outlasted Eastern Illinois 44-23 on the road.
The victory lifts JSU to 8-2, 5-1 Ohio Valley Conference and sets up next week’s showdown at Murray State for the league title.
Murray State, unbeaten in conference play coming into Saturday’s action, lost to Austin Peay 34-31. That left the Racers and Gamecocks tied atop the conference, each with one conference loss headed into next week's game.
"It's huge for this team," JSU coach John Grass said. "This bounce-back win puts you in position to win the conference."
A loss at Murray could drop JSU to third in the OVC. The Gamecocks would have two conference losses and could end up tied with Austin Peay (4-2 OVC), which ended JSU’s seven-game winning streak 13-10 March 28.
Austin Peay is 4-5 overall and not likely to make the playoffs. JSU would hope to get an at-large berth to the reduced 16-team playoff field, should the Gamecocks lose at Murray.
"We don't even want to consider that," Grass said. "We just want to win next week and get the automatic qualifier. We don't want to put it in somebody else's hands.
"Just winning the OVC the last year we're going to be in it will mean a lot to these guys. It's going to be a war next week."
JSU committed six turnovers and amassed 110 penalty yards against Austin Peay, including several key penalties on both of the Governors’ scoring drives. The Gamecocks had 66 yards on eight penalties Saturday.
They had one turnover, too, but not more than they could overcome. Webb hit on 16 of 24 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
Six days after he fumbled twice and threw four interceptions, he walked out of O’Brien Stadium with a 181.3 quarterback rating.
Both of his touchdown passes went to Edwards, covering 26 and 12 yards. They also hooked up for a 44-yard bomb to set up Uriah West’s 3-yard touchdown run to answer an EIU score and put JSU up 14-7 at 7:47 of the second quarter.
Here are three things we learned:
1. Webb’s work
That’s not to say the day was a full Webb gem. His lone turnover, a strip-sack fumble in the second quarter, came with JSU at EIU’s 27-yard line. With a stiff wind to JSU’s back, the Gamecocks looked good for at least an Alen Karajic field goal before the fumble.
Grass said Webb tried to do too much on a busted play and "probably should've thrown the ball away," forgivable on what Grass called "his best day, for sure."
"He had a great week, and it showed up today on the field," Grass said. "He made really, really good decisions. He threw the ball extremely well, considering the wind. ...
"This is what we're capable of, offensively. It was good to see us execute like that, and No. 10 was a big reason for that."
Webb clearly rebounded from easily the worst game of his career. He also rushed for 63 yards, including a 40-yard ramble to set up Josh Samuel’s 10-yard touchdown run to make it 44-23 in the fourth quarter.
"Not only myself rebounded, but we rebounded as a team," Webb said. "We did what we were supposed to do to get the win.
"It was really just executing. ... We just came into this week with the mindset of just execute, and everybody do your job, and everything worked well."
Webb’s most memorable rush of the day came on his 2-yard touchdown run on fourth down in the third quarter. He started left and slammed into two EIU defenders. Both piles joined in before the Panthers could get Webb to the ground, and JSU won the pile push to put the Gamecocks up 31-17.
"I just kept churning my feet, and the weight room kicked in and guys got to pushing," Webb said. "We battled until we got the ball in the end zone."
Webb got a big assist from Samuel, whose 64-yard run gave JSU first-and-goal at the 10. Samuel finished with 130 yards on 12 carries.
JSU gained 540 total yards, 282 rushing.
"It's probably the best we've played all year, offensively," Grass said. "We ran the ball extremely well and threw the ball down the field, and the line had its best day, for sure."
2. Defense had moments
JSU’s defense has been the constant this season, but EIU became the first team since Mercer to score more than two touchdowns against the Gamecocks … a span of eight games.
The Gamecocks even helped. A late-hit penalty on Kam White on third down and four from JSU’s 12 kept an EIU drive alive for Harry Woodbery’s 4-yard keeper for a touchdown to bring the Panthers within 31-23 at 0:14 of the third quarter.
But JSU’s defense scored on Hudson Petty’s 22-yard scoop and score to make it 21-7 at 7:39 of the second quarter.
"We lined up, and the slot receiver motioned over," Petty said. "I keyed on the sniffer that was on that side, and they ran that run to the opposite side, so I just stayed back.
"I saw the ball get loose, so I took off toward the ball, and it kicked out right in front of my feet."
It marked the first collegiate touchdown for Petty, who played quarterback, running back and wide receiver at different times in high school, as well as defense.
The Gamecocks also came up with a stop on fourth and goal from the 9 in the fourth quarter, forcing a Woodbery incompletion.
JSU held its eighth consecutive opponent under 100 rushing yards, holding EIU to 81. Woodbery hit on 14 of 30 passes for 220 yards, including DeWayne Cooks' 60-yard catch and run to set up a touchdown to bring the Panthers within 24-14 at halftime, and a 67-yard hookup with Robbie Lofton.
"You take out a few explosive plays, which we hadn't been giving up, you probably hold them under 200 yards," Grass said. "It's not a bad day, defensively. It's a good day. They have been playing outstanding."
3. Missing Trae
For the third game this spring, JSU missed All-American senior tight end Trae Barry, who hasn’t played in a road game since the spring season started.
Grass cited a bone bruise on one of Barry’s knees for Barry’s absence in JSU’s games at Tennessee State and Tennessee-Martin. He played in JSU’s home victory over Southeast Missouri State and the home loss to Austin Peay.
Barry sustained a season-ending knee injury at Austin Peay in 2019.
Grass said Barry sustained a concussion against Austin Peay on March 28 and didn't make it back from protocol in time to play Saturday. Grass expects Barry to play next week.
"He came close," Grass said. "He just couldn't make it all the way back."
JSU also went without safety Jeremiah Harris (hamstring) at EIU.
"He'll be back next week, too," Grass said.