Jacksonville State head coach Bill Clark. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Thursday, December 05, 2013 10:31 AM
It’s a familiar name with plenty of unfamiliar faces.
In days past, Jacksonville State was one of McNeese State’s Southland Conference rivals, playing in the league from 1997-2002.
Coincidentally, the Gamecocks’ stay in the league was bookended by a pair of Cowboys trips to the Division I-AA national championship game.
Jacksonville State’s first trip to Lake Charles since departing for the Ohio Valley Conference in 2003 will be the biggest game between the two schools. The Gamecocks are searching for their first win in eight meetings, and McNeese is looking for its first playoff win since Jax State’s departure.
A lot has changed for both programs since the last time they squared off. For the Gamecocks that starts with rookie head coach Bill Clark.
Clark is already the most successful first-year coach in program history, leading the Gamecocks to 10 wins, including their first postseason victory since winning the 1992 Division II national title.
His career path is similar to that of McNeese counterpart Matt Viator. Clark won two Class 6A high school titles in Alabama before spending the last five seasons as South Alabama’s defensive coordinator.
“It’s amazing someone can do that,” Viator joked.
Viator won a state title at Jennings High (1992) and spent six seasons as an assistant at McNeese before taking the program’s helm.
“I talked to him for a few minutes, and he’s a Jacksonville guy. He went there,” Viator said. “So I know he’s very excited. You can tell in his voice.”
That enthusiasm helped sell the program’s players on Clark when he took over in January.
But Clark said the key moment for his team coming together was a stretch of three consecutive overtime games in September — wins over North Alabama and Georgia State and a loss to Murray State.
“They’ve had good teams here, but we want to be great,” Clark said. “Finding a way to win all those games really solidified us as a group. I’m just proud they never quit or gave up. That’s been a mark of our team all year.”
The Gamecocks had to rally from a 52-14 loss at No. 2 Eastern Illinois on Nov. 16 to pick up a must-win 42-34 decision over Southeast Missouri on the final day of the regular season.
The momentum from squeezing into the playoff bubble carried over to a 55-14 drubbing of Samford in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision.
“It was just the kind of way you would dream about starting a playoff run,” Clark said.
When Clark says playoff “run,” he means it quite literally.
The Gamecocks are a run-first, run-second and maybe-pass-it-later operation. Powerful running back DaMarcus James has an OVC single-season record 25 touchdowns and averages 100 yards a game.
“He does have some size,” Clark said of the listed-at 220-pounder. “He has great center of gravity. He’s a yards-after-contact guy. He has really good vision. He’s just a terrific running back.”
JSU has another pair of runners who have added eight touchdowns — backup quarterback Eli Jenkins and speedy running back Troymaine Pope. Jenkins has seen playing time in every game this year but played full-time against Samford with starter Max Shortell injured.
Clark said Minnesota transfer Shortell, who is more of a traditional passer, will be available this week.
“Max is 100 percent now, but Eli had the hot hand,” Clark said. “We gave him a shot against Samford and he kept it. We have to look at what a defense does well (to determine who plays).”
The Gamecocks are sound on special teams.
Return Telvin Brown is a threat on punts (10.2 yards per return) and kickoffs (26.1 yards per return). Australian punter Hamish MacInnes can flip the field with an average of 42.7 yards per punt, including a season-long of 86 — one of 16 he’s uncorked longer than 50 yards.
JSU has been most susceptible against the run.
The Gamecocks allowed more than 400 rushing yards against Eastern Illinois and Southeast Missouri before clamping Samford down to a season-low 93 last week.