JACKSONVILLE — Jacksonville State’s football home opener against Mississippi Valley State on Saturday is all about healing wounds … many small ones, self-inflicted and one large one, inflicted by Mother Nature.
The Gamecocks (0-1) spent last week’s open date working on the causes of penalties and turnovers that felled them in Montgomery, where their season-opener to North Carolina A&T 20-17 on Aug. 25.
That loss sent JSU tumbling out of the top 10 in the two major football polls for the first time in 61 weeks … from No. 6 in both polls to No. 12 in the NCAA coaches’ poll and No. 13 in STATS-FCS.
The March 19 tornado that ripped through Jacksonville staggered JSU and the surrounding community. More than two-thirds of campus buildings sustained some kind of damage from the EF-3 storm. Residential areas remain scarred, and residents remain displaced.
JSU bought mobile homes as temporary student housing while apartment buildings are rebuilt or repaired.
For months, JSU coach John Grass has pointed to the home-opening football game and fanfare surrounding it as a potential community rallying point.
“We’ve been looking forward to this game, regardless, win or lose, of that first one, just because we’re playing at home,” Grass, a JSU graduate, said during Monday’s game-week news conference. “It’s big for our school and our community to fill that stadium up on Saturday and play at home and just, kind of, heal some of this stuff from the offseason with the tornado.”
As for the football team and its season, the Gamecocks have their own “self-inflicted” damage to repair, Grass said.
Four turnovers, including fumbles on JSU’s last two possessions, cost the Gamecocks chances for the go-ahead score.
Grass blamed himself for the pass call that led to a strip sack of quarterback Zerrick Cooper on the last possession, which ended at the A&T 23-yard line. With a do-over, Grass said he would call a run and kick the field goal, though JSU saw an earlier field-goal attempt blocked.
Cooper blamed himself for waiting too long to throw with open receivers.
On JSU’s previous possession, wide receiver Josh Pearson fumbled near midfield after a 23-yard pass completion. He blamed himself for not carrying the ball high and tight.
The fumbles marred otherwise impressive performances by both players. Cooper completed 24 of 38 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns. Pearson caught eight passes for 147 yards and a score.
The other self-inflicted wounds were penalties. JSU’s 149 yards on 14 penalties surpassed Pearson’s receiving total and A&T’s 148 yards in total offense.
A targeting call will cause backup defensive back Charles Crawford to sit the first half of the Mississippi Valley State game.
There was also backup guard Deandre Butler’s false start when JSU lined up to go for it on fourth-and-two at the A&T 29 at the end of the third quarter. JSU wound up settling for a 51-yard field-goal attempt, and Cade Stinnett missed.
Butler was in for starting right guard Darius Anderson, who had to miss the game because of a concussion. Partly because of injuries, JSU had 13 first-time starters. Of the 57 JSU players who saw action in the game, 26 made their JSU debuts.
“We do have a young football team,” Grass said. “That’s the reason I think you’re going to see a lot of growth as the year goes on.”
Grass called some of the penalty problems JSU had against A&T are “very correctible.”
“The procedure penalties and things we can clean up you’re going to have, just playing smarter football,” Grass said. “That’s what we’ve been talking about.
“There’ll be some punishment there for penalties, too. I think we got everybody’s attention with that type of stuff. It’s something we’ve got to work on and focus on.”
Anderson should be available to play against MVSU on Saturday, Grass said, but running back Tramel Terry (calf) is expected to miss his second game this season. The hope is that Terry will return for JSU’s Ohio Valley Conference opener, Sept. 23 at home against Tennessee Tech.