COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — In two weeks, a Jacksonville State team that started the season ranked No.6 in FCS football will play just to preserve its string of winning seasons.
That reality came partly thanks to quarterback Bailey Fisher, who accounted for 334 total yards and four touchdowns Saturday in Tennessee Tech’s 37-27 victory over the Gamecocks on Tech’s homecoming. That reality hits with a thud.
JSU, loser in three of its past four games, fell to 6-5 overall, 3-4 in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Gamecocks play host to Eastern Kentucky in their Nov. 23 season finale, looking to preserve the last of several notable streaks that have marked the program’s Division I-era surge since 2013.
JSU has mounted 16 straight winning seasons, the longest active streak in FCS football. The string includes four 6-5 seasons under former JSU coach Jack Crowe, but no season with a .500-or-worse record since the Gamecocks went 5-6 in 2002.
If JSU falls to Eastern Kentucky, the Gamecocks will finish 6-6. The loss to Tech on Saturday assured JSU its worst OVC finish since joining the league before the 2003 season.
The Gamecocks had won five straight OVC titles coming into this season.
“It’s just a waste of potential,” said JSU linebacker Zack Woodard, who finished with 11 tackles Saturday. “We’ve got so much potential. This group is probably the best athletic group, just stars on this team.
“The worst part about it is, it don’t matter if you have potential. You’ve got to capitalize on that potential.”
JSU is all but certain to miss the FCS playoffs for the first since 2012. The Gamecocks’ 32-game winning streak in regular-season home games ended earlier this season, and a 36-game winning streak in OVC play ended in 2018.
As for the Gamecocks’ performance Saturday, JSU coach John Grass linked it to JSU’s 22-17 loss at Tennessee-Martin last week. That setback left JSU with little hope of making the playoffs.
“We had a lot of hope going into that Martin game, and I thought we played well,” Grass said. “We gave ourselves a chance, and, after that game, I feel like this week it was tough getting them ready to play, bouncing back.”
JSU showed life to start the third quarter, driving 75 yards in 10 plays for Michael Matthews’ 19-yard touchdown run to bring the Gamecocks within 24-14.
Tech, a 1-10 team a year ago and one of the OVC’s most improved teams at 6-4, answered with a drive on its own, including Darius Stafford’s circus, jump-ball catch against JSU cornerback Yul Gowdy to set up Fisher’s 26-yard touchdown pass to Brad Clark to make it 31-14.
Haidar Zaidan added a 28-yard field goal at 11:19 of the fourth quarter.
Zerrick Cooper’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Jamari Hester at 8:45 of the fourth quarter closed JSU within 34-21.
Zaidan’s 20-yard field goal at 1:19 of the fourth made it 37-21, and Cooper’s 66-yard touchdown pass to Josh Pearson at 0:54 closed the scoring. K.J. Stepherson caught Cooper’s conversion pass but went out of bounds short of the goal line.
Cooper finished 28-for-41 for 312 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
“We were down, and we could’ve given up when they had us down 24-7 at halftime,” said Pearson, a bright spot with eight catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns. “We came out of halftime fighting. We should’ve done it a lot sooner.”
Tech built its 24-7 halftime lead largely because JSU couldn’t stop Fisher, especially on third down. His 34-yard scramble on third-and-eight got Tech to JSU’s 7, setting up Fisher’s 7-yard touchdown run to make it 17-7 at 8:43 of the second quarter.
Later in the second, Fisher scrambled left then delivered a 25-yard strike to Clark, converting third and 16 to the JSU 9. That set up Fisher’s 3-yard shovel pass touchdown to Metriu Fleming to make it 24-7.
Tech converted six of eight third downs in the first half.
Fisher also had a 3-yard touchdown run in the first quarter to reclaim a 10-7 lead for Tech. Reminiscent of dual performances by former JSU quarterback Eli Jenkins, Fisher completed 20 of 27 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 121 yards and two more scores.
“He’s not as explosive (as Jenkins) running the ball, but he can beat you with his legs and arm,” Grass said. “He had a great day today. He’s just a leader.”
Zaidan opened the scoring with a 53-yard field goal on the game’s first drive, but JSU answered with its best moment of the half … a 10-play, 75-yard drive ending with Cooper’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Pearson to give the Gamecocks a brief, 7-3 lead.
Tech followed with 21 unanswered points, and JSU never regained the lead. Now, the Gamecocks face a two-week salvage operation.
“It’s been wild,” Pearson said. “We had a lot of high hopes, a lot of big dreams.
“You can’t win all of them. It’s going to eventually come to an end, but I hate that it had to come my senior year, with this group here. I love this group of guys, and now we just have to finish as strong as we can.”