JACKSONVILLE — Eastern Illinois brought an “air raid” to eighth-ranked Jacksonville State on Saturday.
Turns out, JSU had the better air attack.
The Gamecocks outpassed the Panthers, and wide receiver Josh Pearson’s three touchdown catches put him alongside a JSU legend in the school’s record book en route to a 49-22 victory on Burgess-Snow Field.
JSU (5-1) won its fifth consecutive game and 36th in a row in Ohio Valley Conference play, moving within four of breaking Duquesne’s FCS-record conference winning streak, but it was a day to celebrate another record tied.
Pearson reached 11 touchdown catches on the season, tying Josh Barge’s school record set during JSU’s 2015 run to the FCS title game.
“This is truly a blessing,” said Pearson, who signed with JSU in 2015 and became academically eligible to play late in the 2017 season. “It’s coming from a long wait, a long wait.
“It’s nice to tie it. Now, let’s see a new master. I want to try to break it.”
Pearson caught eight passes for 137 yards and three scores …. touchdown catches of 35 and 31 yards from Zerrick Cooper and 23 yards from Zion Webb. This after catching one Webb pass for 15 yards in the first half.
Pearson and starting quarterback Cooper missed on three tries to connect in the first half. JSU made a point to get Pearson more involved in the second half.
“We just said, ‘We’re going to get him the ball,’” JSU coach John Grass said. “A lot of times, teams will try to take him away. They’ll go over the top, coverage wise, or keep a safety in the middle and don’t let him get the post routes.
“We were able to get some throws to him and let him make some plays.”
Nine of Pearson’s 11 touchdown catches this season have covered 20-or-more yards, and most have come from Cooper. They made a signature Cooper-to-Pearson play on their 31-yard hookup at 7:11 of the third quarter, with Cooper dodging the pass rush, scrambling left and popping back to loft the ball. Pearson came across the end zone and turned back up the field, meeting the ball at the goal line.
“The play was to get Jamari (Hester) open,” Pearson said. “Once I had seen I’d beat the safety over the top, I just seen Coop scrambling. I didn’t know he’d got hit when he was throwing the ball. …
“I had to come in to it, and I don’t know. It just happened. That’s all I can say.”
JSU gained 592 total yards and outpassed EIU (1-6, 1-3 OVC) 364-350, with Cooper and Webb combining to complete 25 of 40 passes. Each quarterback threw an interception, but Cooper also hit on a 44-yard touchdown pass to tight end Trae Berry.
Each quarterback also had a running touchdown … Cooper for 4 yards in the second quarter and Webb for 7 in the fourth.
EIU came into the game averaging 342.2 yards passing, tops in the OVC, but JSU held the Panthers to three Nick Bruno field goals -- 27, 40 and 36 yards -- through three quarters, good enough for a 35-9 lead.
EIU’s Johnathan Brantley completed two fourth-quarter touchdown passes, 9 yards to Alexander Hollins and 39 to Aaron Gooch. The Panthers passed for 111 yards in the fourth quarter.
JSU went with extra defensive backs and no middle linebacker throughout the day.
“We played a package that we hadn’t played all year, and so it was kind of a different look,” All-America safety Marlon Bridges said. “I don’t think they were expecting it.
“We knew the game was going to be on us, but we knew the defensive line and the linebackers were going to get enough pressure for us to make plays.”
JSU’s pass-coverage successes on the day included redshirt freshman safety Darius Joiner’s first collegiate interception, which came off of a Harry Woodbery throw in the third quarter.
“All I was thinking about was the one I’d dropped in the first half,” said Joiner, who starred on Handley High School’s 2016 Class 4A title team. “I had to redeem myself. That’s all I can say.”