The farther Jacksonville State moves into uncharted territory, the better it seems to get.
After finishing a distant third in the Ohio Valley Conference, the Gamecocks have gone on the road and knocked off two straight ranked opponents in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
“I think there is always the ‘us against the world’ mentality,” first-year coach Bill Clark said Monday in his weekly conference call from Jacksonville, Ala.
“We take a lot of pride in playing well on the road,” Clark said two days after a dominating 31-10 win at sixth-ranked McNeese State.
Next up: A quarterfinal game Saturday at 1 p.m. at No. 3 Eastern Washington, the Gamecocks’ deepest advance in the postseason since they won the Division II title in 1992.
The winner advances to the semifinals and will play at No. 2 seed Eastern Illinois from the OVC if the Panthers are able to defeat No. 7 seed Towson this week in their quarterfinal.
If Eastern wins and EIU loses, the Eagles would play Towson in Cheney.
Jacksonville State has gotten this far mostly with defense, holding McNeese and first-round opponent Samford to a combined 92 yards in the first half.
“Going into any game against a great opponent, you never really expect to come out and play as well as we did,” said Clark, whose club also registered a school-record 11 sacks at McNeese.
That against a Cowboys team that entered the playoff showdown as the fourth-highest scoring team in FCS at 42.5 points per game. But the Gamecocks kept McNeese State out of the end zone until just over 10 minutes remained in the game.
Meanwhile, Gamecocks junior running back DaMarcus James ran 24 times – several times out of the wildcat formation – for 127 yards and three scores. In the process, James, a first-team OVC selection, ran his season total to 1,431 yards, breaking Rondy Rogers’ school record of 1,417 set in 2001.
James, a 5-foot-10, 220-pounder, also has 28 touchdowns, only two fewer than the rest of the team combined.
The line is anchored by all-conference center Max Holcome, another first-team pick who helped the Gamecocks lead the conference with an average of 229 yards a game on the ground.
Quarterback Max Shortell, a second-teamer behind Walter Payton Award finalist Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois, has completed 102 of 178 pass attempts and 1,435 yards, but for only six touchdowns.
First-team cornerback Pierre Warren has 65 tackles and three interceptions.
Long on talent, the Gamecocks (11-3) are still short on FCS playoff experience: Saturday’s game at Eastern will be only the sixth in program history.
“It is on the other end of the country and we haven’t taken a road trip quite like this,” Clark said.
“I think we will get out there early and get acclimated and other than the red field, everything will be normal,” said Clark, who added that he’s already suffering eyestrain through watching Eastern film on the red turf.