JACKSONVILLE — Jacksonville State football fans needed a good memory in the Gamecocks’ only home game of 2020, something to flush away a disappointing 2019 and let them fill in blanks of what could’ve been this fall.
They got rain, lots of it. It came down in deluges, but the 5,870 JSU fans in attendance got what they came to Burgess-Snow Field for Saturday. They got a 34-28 victory over Mercer, followed by a bit of Mother Nature’s mercy.
Rain cleared in time for JSU’s football team and the Marching Southerners to celebrate a victory like they do, swaying and singing “I’ll Fly Away.”
Soon thereafter, remnants of Hurricane Delta broke to the west, allowing sunlight to poke through as JSU fans went home.
“It felt good to be able to do that for our fans,” senior tight end Trae Barry said. “I hate that they had to stay out there in the rain.”
Forgive JSU fans if they’ve felt in the rain for some time.
Like the rest of the country, they’ve endured life changes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. That included the Ohio Valley Conference moving its season to the spring, but allowing teams to schedule non-conference games in the fall.
JSU scheduled four games, all in October and only Saturday’s at home.
Had JSU lost, fans would’ve gone home seeing 2020 as a continuance of 2019, the toughest season since JSU’s resurgence started under Bill Clark in 2013. The 2019 version of JSU missed the playoffs for the first time since 2012 and saw so many notable streaks that defined an era of dominance in the OVC dissipate like Delta’s rain bands Saturday.
Instead, fans saw JSU score 24 unanswered points to lead 27-14 at halftime. They saw Nicario Harper return a fumble 64 yards in a driving, fourth-quarter rain to provide just enough cushion.
They saw JSU’s first victory since the Gamecocks beat Murray State 14-12 on Oct. 26, 2019. That Murray State game also marked JSU’s last victory at home, before Saturday.
The Mercer game also saw career milestones from two JSU seniors who just might’ve played their final home games.
Quarterback Zerrick Cooper threw for 139 yards, upping to 7,191 for his two-plus years as JSU’s starter. He passed Ed Lett for second in school history.
Whether Cooper will play in the spring season could depend on his NFL prospects. That prospect occurred to Cooper.
“Me and Trae actually talked about this yesterday,” he said. “At the same time, like I told him yesterday, we really can’t focus on that right now. We’ve got two more games to play.
“We’re just happy to be on the field with these guys right now.”
Barry’s 84 receiving yards lifted him to 1,212. He passed Butch Barker for second in JSU history, among tight ends.
“It’s a great accomplishment,” he said. “Of course, I want to strive to be number one, but that’s not the main goal here. I’m just looking forward to what the future games hold.”
JSU plays at North Alabama next week and at Florida International on Oct. 23. The next game after that comes Feb. 21, at Tennessee State.
The next home game is Feb. 28, against Tennessee Tech.
That assumes, of course, that the always looming pandemic doesn’t worsen and force more tough decisions from the OVC.
For 2020, there was Saturday. It was a rainy Saturday, one that JSU coach John Grass considered “top three” among his rain-game experiences.
It was also a victorious Saturday. JSU and its fans needed one of those.
“Everybody wanted to come out and put on a show for the fans at home,” said junior safety Darius Joiner, who led JSU with 12 tackles. “We knew it was the only one, and we’ve been trying to get back to ‘The Snow’ for a long time.”