At first glance, Eastern Washington’s defense is facing another team that likes to hand the ball to a workhorse running back.
For one thing, the Jacksonville State zone-read offense is nothing like the two-tight-end set of South Dakota State, which the Eagles overpowered in the second half of a 41-17 FCS playoff win last weekend.
For another, Gamecocks running back DaMarcus James presents a different challenge than the upright style of SDSU’s Zach Zenner, whom the Eagles held to 71 yards.
“He does look a bit like a bowling ball,” Eastern defensive coordinator John Graham said of the 5-foot-10, 220-pound James, who’s averaging 5.2 yards a rush.
He’s also the main reason the Gamecocks rank seventh in the nation in red-zone offense (scoring on 89 percent of their chances). James is superb in short-yardage situations and has 28 touchdowns this season.
Along with a stingy defense, James and JSU’s run offense is a major reason the Gamecocks are still in the FCS playoffs after never winning a postseason game until this year.
“Not only short yardage, but medium yardage, long yardage and all of the above,” Eastern linebackers coach Josh Fetter said.
“He’s just a stud, and he can make you miss or run you over, and he does great job blocking,” Fetter said.
The Eagles (11-2) will have to contain James if they are to advance to their second straight FCS semifinal.
The answer is “to bring extra hats to the party,” Eagles coach Beau Baldwin said.
“You have to finish, and you don’t want him rubbing off for another 2 or 3 yards (after contact),” Baldwin said.
Against JSU, the Eagles sold out against the run and conceded short crossing routes before Eastern’s offense continued to score and force the Jackrabbits to abandon the run altogether.
The task this week is complicated by the Gamecocks’ zone-read offense, which Graham said requires the linebackers to “be more disciplined instead of running downhill.”
JSU quarterback Eli Jenkins is a major running threat, carrying 123 times for an average of 6.8 yards and scoring eight touchdowns. Jenkins has more rushing yards (832) than passing (760), and has thrown just two TD passes.
But this isn’t just a ground-and-pound offense. JSU has put together 24 scoring drives that took less than a minute off the clock, and 35 drives that lasted less than 1:42. All but four of those series went for touchdowns.
Jenkins, a 6-3, 200-pound redshirt freshman, was injured earlier this year and yielded to junior Max Shortell, a 6-6, 240-pound pocket passer.
JSU coach Bill Clark said Jenkins would start against the Eagles, but said he could make a change “depending on what the opponent does well and doesn’t do well.”
Baldwin said the JSU offense is unlike anything the Eagles have faced recently, and most resembles that of Southeast Missouri State, which Eastern beat in an FCS playoff game in 2010.
Compared with opponents from this season, “It’s probably a little like Sam Houston, along with bits and pieces of others,” Baldwin said.
Because the women’s basketball team has a game Saturday, Reese Court will not be open to fans seeking a relief from cold weather, athletic director Bill Chaves said. … Cornerback Ronald Baines, who suffered a concussion against South Dakota State, is listed as probable this week. … The third-seeded Eagles will know before kickoff whether a win will get them a home berth in the semifinals. That’s because second-seeded Eastern Illinois will play No. 5 Towson on Friday night. If Towson and Eastern win, the semifinal will be in Cheney.