(STATS) – Jacksonville State's quest to return to the FCS national championship game begins this weekend, and that's the only place where its mind will be.
“If you look ahead this time of year, you will be taking up equipment on Monday,” coach John Grass said. “It is a do-or-die situation and you have to do your very best.”
Two years ago, the Gamecocks were the No. 3 seed and enjoyed a first-round bye but were stunned 37-26 by Sam Houston State at home in their playoff opener. Those still around from that squad admitted their collective mind back then wondered to what was potentially down the road.
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Grass and Co. weren't about to let that happen again in 2015.
The Gamecocks lived only for the moment, and it paid off with a trip to the FCS title game. Though the season ended with a rather uncompetitive performance in that 37-10 loss to North Dakota State in suburban Dallas, the mental path in which Jacksonville State took to reach the FCS promised land is one it expects to again follow starting Saturday at home against Youngstown State (9-3).
“All of our guys understand how to approach each week after being here last year, and even the guys that are freshmen this year understand it,” senior quarterback and Ohio Valley Conference offensive player of year Eli Jenkins said.
It's certainly worked for the Gamecocks (10-1), who again are the No. 3 seed this season.
Since a 34-13 loss at then-No. 21 LSU on Sept. 10, Jacksonville State has averaged 33.7 points while winning nine in a row. Third in the FCS in scoring defense, the Gamecocks have yielded just 67 points in their last six games.
Grass, the first coach in FCS history to begin his career with three straight undefeated conference seasons, credits his team's continued success to their strong practice habits and attention to detail.
“They are more locked in to the preparation, and it is about how we play,” Grass said. “I think they enjoy practicing because that is how you get good at something, because they rep it.
“You can't look at who you are playing and what they are like. It is staying focused on us and how we approach and how we play the game.”
Youngstown has subscribed to that same theory, but as the underdog is also taking the 'us against the world' mantra into the weekend. Despite recording a third consecutive victory, 38-24 over Samford in the first round, the Penguins have heard talk that they don't stand a chance against these Gamecocks.
As far as Youngstown is concerned, that's just more incentive to prove its doubters wrong even through its three defeats came at current No. 14 West Virginia and the Missouri Valley Football Conference co-champions, top-seeded North Dakota State and No. 8 seed South Dakota State.
“Come out and just compete,” Penguins safety Jameel Smith said. “This is kind of a big challenge to us, and we kind of took (the negative talk) personally.
“It's Youngstown against everybody else and that's how we look at it.”
Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2006, the Penguins have totaled 103 points in two games and of late rode the legs of senior Jody Webb, who has rushed for 507 yards in the last three contests. He gained a career-high 174 and scored twice against Samford.
The Penguins also feature fellow senior Martin Ruiz, the school's all-time leading rusher who has gained 1,086 yards and scored 11 times on the ground in 2016.
“No matter who is behind us we know that we're behind one another, and we are going to do what it takes,” Webb said.
The Penguins have allowed only four rushing TDs, but the multi-threat Jenkins has rushed for a team-high 795 yards with 12 touchdowns. He is 5-3 in playoff action, passing for 1,218 yards with seven touchdowns and rushing for 935 with nine scores.
The winner of this first meeting between the schools will face either No. 6 seed The Citadel or Wofford in the quarterfinals.