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Mark Edwards: JSU has fun at home on a rainy Saturday

JSU Mercer action

Jacksonville head coach John Grass has words with an official during the Mercer vs JSU NCAA football game. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

JACKSONVILLE — Wouldn't you know it? After Jacksonville State finished its rain-swept 34-28 win over Mercer on Saturday afternoon, the sun came out and shined on JSU Stadium.

That rain was something Saturday, especially in the third quarter as JSU head coach John Grass said it was "coming sideways."

As Grass pointed out, rain invaded five of the Gamecocks' seven home games last year, so why not have more of it when JSU played it's only fall home game of 2020?

As we go over Saturday's game and offer analysis, we can't ignore how the rain affected what JSU wanted to do and what it actually did.

Start with the running game. Transfers Pat Jackson (11 carries, 62 yards) and Josh Samuel (eight carries, 44 yards) offer more depth at running back than a year ago. It helps that they're running behind a more experienced and confident line than JSU had in 2019.

It's clear that because of the rain, JSU didn't want to take a lot of chances by putting the ball in the air too much. The Gamecocks took 68 offensive snaps and ran on 50 of them.

Zerrick Cooper looked good throwing the ball, completing 12 of 18, and if this had been a dry day, it seems likely he would've found Trae Barry more often than he did.

Cooper targeted Barry four times Saturday, and the rangy 6-foot-7 tight end caught the ball all four times for 84 yards.

Barry is truly a weapon. In watching him, it's hard not to think about how the NFL always seems to have all these tight ends from smaller schools who turn into solid, dependable ballplayers.

It helped JSU that it now has a dependable place-kicker in freshman Alen Karajic. He made two early field goals from 38 and 43 yards. Those field goals helped thwart the mental toll of Mercer getting two early touchdowns, as 14-6 doesn't sound nearly as bad as being down 14-0 right out of the gate.

In one of those instances, JSU had fourth-and-four from the 21-yard line and immediately turned to Karajic. Last year, Grass likely would've gone for it. Maybe that would've been a worthwhile gamble, but later, JSU had fourth-and-23 at the Mercer 26 before calling upon Karajic. Last year, even at fourth-and-23, Grass almost certainly would've taken the risk because there wasn't anybody on campus who could be trusted to try a 43-yarder.

Grass said Karajic had a hip-flexor injury, which is why he didn't kick off Saturday.

If there's one minor issue about decisions Grass made in the first half, perhaps he should've gone for two after one of those touchdowns. It could've become an issue late, as JSU held a 27-21 lead and Mercer had the ball. Nicario Harper's 64-yard fumble return for a touchdown kept it from being a problem.

Special teams as a whole went well for JSU, except for the opening kickoff, which Deondre Johnson returned 100 yards for a touchdown. Grass said afterward that JSU never should've kicked to him. He's right — Johnson returned one for a touchdown last year and averaged 34.8 yards on kickoff returns.

Defensively, JSU had several bright spots.

Kolby Fuqua showed he's not a one-game wonder. He had 10 tackles and forced a fumble. It seemed that whenever anything big was happening, he was in the middle of it.

Safety Darius Joiner is a man in the secondary. He had 12 tackles and clearly isn't afraid of contact. He showed as much last year, and now with guys like Traco Williams and Marlon Bridges gone, he's getting a chance to step forward as a big gun as safety.

Marshall Clark of Munford had an interception and seven tackles. Harper, a transfer from Southern Mississippi, missed the first half after getting ejected in the second half for targeting against Florida State last week. He still had six tackles and looks like a solid addition.

JSU fans should take note: Harper made a point afterward to say more than once how much he loves being at JSU and appreciates the support from the fans.

Defensive end D.J. Coleman keeps getting better and better.

There's two more games, then the all-important spring season, which begins Feb. 21 with JSU allowed to start practice Jan. 23.

It's going to be an interesting team to watch.

Sports Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.

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