Matchup of Ohio Valley powers could have makings of a “classic”
(STATS) – When Jacksonville State officials asked coach John Grass which opponent on the schedule he wanted the school’s homecoming game to feature, he didn’t hesitate to pick Eastern Kentucky.
Traditionally, schools like to have a favorable matchup for alumni and students to enjoy and highlight the homecoming weekend. And usually not one against a fellow ranked opponent that – like the No. 1 Gamecocks – almost took down an FBS opponent from the SEC.
But that’s what Grass and his squad will get Saturday when No. 13 Eastern Kentucky (5-2, 4-0) comes to town in a meeting between the Ohio Valley Conference’s two ranked teams.
"We knew in the offseason that this would be a big game," Grass said. "I picked this one because it was Halloween and you knew you would have a great crowd here because it is a big game and they have a great team coming back.
"We want that stadium sold out, and it should be sold out Saturday because it is going to be a classic game."
In addition to being one of the top coaches in the FCS, Grass continues to hone his skills in public relations and marketing. After the Gamecocks (6-1, 4-0) fell 27-20 in overtime to then-No. 6 Auburn on Sept. 12, Grass challenged the student body and Jacksonville community to show up in force to the following week’s home date with Tennessee State. The result was a Burgess-Snow Field-record crowd of 23,413 who witnessed the 48-13 victory.
Grass was at it again this week.
"These are two great football teams that could play with anybody in the country," he said. "I think regardless, the winner or loser has a great chance to make a run for it in the playoffs.
"If you want to see a great football game, come to our place on Saturday."
One of seven FCS games this week to feature ranked teams squaring off against each other, this contest also marks the second straight season both schools are in the Top 25. Since 2003, Jacksonville State has won a league-high 76 conference games, including 13 in a row, while Eastern Kentucky is next with 75.
The schools have split the 12 previous meetings, but JSU has won the last two. After falling 68-10 at Jacksonville State in 2013, EKU trailed 10-6 early in the fourth quarter at home last season before the Gamecocks pulled away for a 20-6 victory.
"There’s no problem with getting focused," said Colonels coach Dean Hood, whose team’s only losses came against North Carolina State and at Kentucky in overtime. "These are the easy ones to coach. Guys are motivated. They’re locked in."
Jacksonville State is second in the OVC with 36.7 points per game with the Colonels right behind at 35.7.
The Gamecocks are fifth in the FCS with an average of 279.6 rushing yards and fourth with 82.1 allowed per game on the ground. The Colonels are seventh, giving up 95.1 rushing yards per contest.
Jacksonville State’s Troymaine Pope leads the conference in rushing (726 yards), yards per carry (8.4) and rushing yards per game (103.7). Eli Jenkins has thrown for 1,306 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions while also rushing for 343 yards with five scores.
"It starts up front," EKU linebacker Thomas Owens said. "Our defensive line plays hard every game. If they can come out and play together, we can stop them."
Eastern Kentucky’s Bennie Coney has completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 918 yards with 10 TDs and three interceptions while not getting sacked in the last three games.
It’s uncertain if reigning OVC offensive player of the year Dy’Shawn Mobley will be in the Eastern backfield after missing last Saturday’s 45-21 win over Tennessee State with an illness. However, freshman Ethan Thomas proved he could more than handle the load by rushing for 149 yards and a TD on 18 carries in the victory.
"We’re just blessed to have some depth," Hood said. "It’s the next-man-up mentality."
Though the Colonels understand the magnitude of this contest, they won’t put too much pressure on themselves.
"We’ve all had it circled on our calendars but at the same time we’re taking it the same way we’ve taken every week," EKU receiver Devin Borders said. "We’ll be ready."