MARTIN, Tenn. — The BeeGees’ disco-era classic “Stayin’ Alive” played on the Graham Stadium public address as Jacksonville State’s football team filed out of its locker room Saturday.
Like disco, JSU’s playoff chances appear dead.
Terry Williams’ 65-yard punt return late in the third quarter gave Tennessee-Martin the lead for good, and several missed scoring opportunities doomed the Gamecocks to their fourth loss of the season and third in Ohio Valley Conference play, 22-17.
The best JSU (6-4, 3-3 OVC) can finish is 8-4 and clinging to the FCS playoff bubble at regular-season’s end.
“It makes it a really far stretch to make the playoffs, for sure,” JSU coach John Grass said. “You win out, and you never know. You don’t know what the rest are going to do.
“It would be tough. You’d have eight wins. They’ve put 8-4 teams in before, probably worse football teams than what we have. You never know.”
The Gamecocks last missed the playoffs in 2012, and 13-year head coach Jack Crowe was fired after that season. Bill Clark replaced him and gave way to John Grass, Clark’s offensive coordinator, a year later, and JSU has lived life as a high-level FCS program in the Clark/Grass years.
The Gamecocks achieved a national runner-up finish in 2015 and regular top-eight playoff seeds with first-round byes along the way.
They also won five straight OVC titles, through last season, but stand two games out of the lead in the loss column through Saturday’s action. Austin Peay and Southeast Missouri State, tied for the lead, have beaten JSU this season and hold head-to-head tiebreakers.
JSU finishes the regular season at Tennessee Tech next week and at home, against Eastern Kentucky, on Nov. 23.
“Right now, we’ve just got to focus game after game,” said quarterback Zerrick Cooper, who completed 16 of 36 passes for 240 yards, a touchdown and interception. “If we make the playoffs, that’s good, but we can’t look forward right now.”
Williams’ punt return with 29 seconds left in the third quarter set JSU on course for defeat. JSU’s Yul Gowdy knocked down John Bachus’ conversion pass, but the Skyhawks (6-3, 5-1) led 19-14.
“We worked all week not to punt the ball in the middle of the field, and we punted in the middle of the field all day long,” Grass said. “We knew that guy was electric, and we wanted to kick the ball away from him.”
JSU had chances to score, but one went the way others have lately … failing on fourth down, because JSU doesn’t have a field-goal kicker that Grass trusts from medium range. Tight end Landon Rice dropped a pass on fourth-and-four from UTM’s 18-yard line in the third quarter.
UTM’s stop of Michael Matthews for a 6-yard loss on first-and-10 from the 15 in the fourth quarter plus two incomplete Zerrick Cooper passes forced JSU to try Bryant Wallace, and he hit from 37 yards to bring the Gamecocks within 19-17 with 9:40 left.
UTM answered with a Bachus bomb to Colton Dowell to the JSU 10, setting up Ryan Courtright’s 18-yard field goal to make it 22-17 with 5:46 left.
JSU had two opportunities after that, the best coming on the ensuing drive. UTM stopped Matthews for a 5-yard loss on first down from the Skyhawks’ 38 then sacked Cooper, setting up fourth-and-20. Cooper’s deep pass for Josh Pearson fell incomplete.
JSU had one, last-gasp possession, taking over at its 18 with 1:02 left. A pass-interference call and completion to Jerad Washington got JSU to the UTM 43, but a false-start penalty and 10-second runoff left JSU two seconds.
Joseph Murry and Austin Pickett sacked Cooper on the game’s final play.
“We’ve got to have a sense of urgency,” Cooper said. “The last play, with seconds left, we got a penalty. In that situation, we’ve got to have a sense of urgency.”
Cooper’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Matthews on the first-half’s final offensive snap, plus Wallace’s extra point, reclaimed a 14-13 lead for JSU at halftime.
That ended a 75-yard drive that followed Bachus’ 26-yard touchdown pass to Dowell to give UTM its first lead, 13-7, at 1:29. Courtright missed the extra point.
A Cooper-to-Jamari Hester quick screen broke for 61 yards to set up the game’s first score, Cooper’s 1-yard sneak at 7:36 of the first quarter. The pass to Hester put Cooper over 6,000 career passing yards, making him the fourth JSU player to pass that milestone.
The Skyhawks tied it 7-7 at 6:42 of the second, when officials ruled Bachus got the ball over the goal line before fumbling on a 10-yard run. The play stood on review.
JSU had its defense to thank for leading at halftime. The Gamecocks came up with two stops with their backs to the goal line.
Safety Traco Williams and linebacker Jalen Choice stopped Peyton Logan on fourth-and-one from the JSU 2-yard line in the fourth quarter. D.J. Coleman and Tyre McKinney combined to stop Bachus for a loss on fourth-and-one from the 2 in the second quarter.
“We just have to pick it up a little more,” said safety Marlon Bridges, whose stop at the 1 forced UTM to settle for a field goal on its last score and kept JSU within a touchdown of winning. “When the offense is not doing good, we just have to step up even more on defense.
“We had a couple of bad plays where they scored. I don’t want to blame the offense.”
Both teams missed first-half field goal attempts, Courtright from 46 yards at 3:53 of the first quarter and Wallace from 21 at 1:29 of the second.
Now, JSU’s seniors have to face the prospect of seeing their run of OVC titles and playoff appearances end.
“I’m just going to go out there and have fun, just keep fighting with my brothers to the end,” Bridges said. “I just love all of those guys.
“It just is what it is, but I’m not going to quit on them, and I know they’re not going to quit on me.”