CHARLESTON, Ill. — Maybe it was the pants? Nah.
No. 17 Jacksonville State changed its road look in more ways than one Saturday. Quarterback Zerrick Cooper reached rarified air with his 50th touchdown pass, and another week with a solid running game pushed the Gamecocks past winless Eastern Illinois 28-20 on O’Brien Field.
JSU upped to 5-2, 2-1 Ohio Valley Conference. More noteworthy, the Gamecocks got their first victory away from home this season after losing at Southeastern Louisiana 35-14 and at Austin Peay 52-33.
The victory Saturday made JSU 4-6 in games away from home, dating back through the 2018 season.
JSU broke out new road uniforms at SLU in August and wore the same, white-on-white set at Austin Peay. Saturday, the Gamecocks switched to red pants with the new road jerseys.
Could it have been the pants?
“If you ask Coach (John) Grass, I’m pretty sure he’ll say, yeah,” JSU quarterback Zerrick Cooper said with a grin.
Grass wore what he called a “throwback” black cap to the game. He said the new look might’ve been about changing the mindset on the road. Maybe. Just a little.
“The guys have been wanting to wear the red pants,” Grass said. “They like wearing the red ones.
“When you’re 0-2 in the white ones, it don’t hurt to change them up. There’s the rally cap, so rally pants.”
JSU’s win on the road didn’t come without anxiety. Jaelin Benefield’s 3-yard run in the third quarter and Isaiah Hill’s 10-yard reverse to start the fourth brought EIU within 21-20, and only Josh Delgado’s missed extra point on Hill’s score prevented a tie.
JSU answered quickly, with Cooper lobbing a 39-yard touchdown pass to Josh Pearson with 12:56 to play. Two quarters after joining Ed Lett (61) as the only JSU quarterbacks to throw at least 50 touchdown pass, Cooper became the first to throw at least three in five consecutive games.
Cooper completed 22 of 34 passes for 237 yards and three touchdowns on the day.
The touchdown catch was Pearson’s second of the game, 11th of the season and ninth in four games. He has 28 for his career.
JSU had two more scoring chances in the fourth quarter, but D’Mitri George recovered a Cooper fumble at EIU’s 31-yard line, and Corneliuss Page picked off a Cooper pass after JSU was flagged for a false start on third-and-three from EIU’s 36.
JSU’s defense stood up both times and ended EIU’s last-gasp drive when linebacker Zack Woodard intercepted a Harry Woodberry pass then recovered his own fumble.
“We always get off to a slow start, but we always stay together,” said safety Traco Williams, who intercepted two passes on the day.
The difficulty level was the only surprise about JSU’s road victory. EIU is 0-7 under first-year coach Adam Cushing, and reality seemed to catch up with the Panthers soon after Woodberry lobbed a perfect 25-yard lead to Hill to cap a 10-play, 77-yard drive and put them up 7-0 at 8:47 of the first quarter.
Woodberry’s touchdown pass marked only EIU’s fifth of the season.
JSU, outscored 72-33 in the first quarter through its first six games, answered with Cooper’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Pearson to tie the game.
Cooper added a 19-yard fade throw to K.J. Stepherson for another touchdown pass in the second quarter.
“I’d say we were up and down,” Cooper said. “I believe we created our own energy, coming out that first half, and then it seemed like we flipped the switch. First half, we came out with a lot of energy, and the second half, we didn’t.
“We’ve got to find a way to be consistent.”
Michael Matthews added a 3-yard touchdown run to give JSU a 21-7 lead at 1:52 of the second quarter and cap a strong first half for JSU’s improving running game. The Gamecocks had 165 rushing yards at halftime, matching its previous-best game total this season.
JSU rushed for 165 yards against Chattanooga on Sept. 7 and 162 last week, against Tennessee State. EIU gave up 135.2 a game through its first six.
The Gamecocks finished with a season-high 186 rushing yards.
“We’ve had more physicality at practice, more attention to detail the past two weeks,” said Matthews, who led JSU with 92 rushing yards.
JSU’s defense continued to give up yards and big plays. Woodberry hit on 19 of 36 passes for 203 yards, including a 35-yard lob to Teriq Phillips.
JSU’s defense also continued to make stands. The Gamecocks forced a Woodberry incompletion on fourth-and-six from JSU’s 16-yard line in the second quarter, and Williams’ interception in the end zone squelched another EIU scoring threat.
“We’ve kind of been preaching all week that, when they get in the red zone, number 83 ran to the corner,” said Williams, who also picked off Woodberry’s Hail Mary heave on the first half’s final play.