Bill Clark is a man of vision, but he’s rubbing his eyes this week.
The Jacksonville State football coach figures the red turf at Roos Field is doing its job for Eastern Washington, but it’s making his task even tougher.
“For them it’s a novelty, and I think that is what you want in recruiting … but it makes it hard watching film because the red blinds you,” said Clark, who will see the Inferno up close on Saturday afternoon when his team faces the Eagles in an FCS quarterfinal game.
Throw in a third-ranked Eastern team that is at the top of its game, and Clark is definitely seeing red. He said Eagles quarterback Vernon Adams and his receivers are as good as anything he’s seen, and sees an Eastern defense that’s physical and underrated.
Clark’s eyes are wide-open to the challenge, but he’s overcome a few already, winning the first two FCS playoff games in school history in resounding fashion against Samford (55-14) and at McNeese State (31-10).
Not bad for a first-year coach who inherited a team without a proven quarterback and with a defense ranked near the bottom of FCS. The Gamecocks hadn’t suffered a losing season since 2002 under former Jack Crowe, but had never gone beyond the first round of the playoffs.
As Clark, a JSU alum who graduated in 1990, told his players when he was hired in December 2012, “We’ve been good, but we want to be great.”
Clark, 45, has tasted greatness at the high school level, leading Prattville to a pair of Alabama Class 6A titles and a No. 2 national ranking. From there he moved straight to South Alabama, coordinating a defense that allowed 13 points and 254.6 yards for a team that went 10-0.
USA went 10-0, and gave up only 5.9 points and 234 yards per game in 2009 as the defense forced 25 sacks and forced 23 turnovers in only seven games.
At Jacksonville State, the defense has turned into one of the best in the country; only twice in the last eight games have the Gamecocks (11-3 overall, 5-3 in the Ohio Valley Conference) given up more than two touchdowns. Their pass-efficiency defense ranks sixth in the country, which has paid dividends in the red zone.
“You see a lot of great teams that can move the team up and down the field … but as we keep saying, ‘They’re not in (the end zone) till they’re in,’” Clark said.
In 53 trips inside the JSU 20-yard line, opponents have scored 40 times, but 14 of those were field goals.
And that’s left opponents seeing red.
Big numbers for Eastern
In addition to all the big individual numbers, it’s been a record-breaking year for the Eastern offense:
-Team scoring (526): Eastern is just 11 points from the Big Sky record of 537 set by Montana in 2009. Eastern broke the school record of 488 set in 2004.
-Team touchdowns (74): EWU broke the Big Sky record of 72 set by Idaho in 1993 and the school record of 67 set in 2004.
-Team total Offense (6,877): EWU broke the Big Sky and school records of 6,735 yards set in 1997.
Tale of two conferences
While the traditionally strong Big Sky Conference is down to one playoff team – Eastern – the usually downtrodden Ohio Valley Conference still has two representatives.
If No. 2 Eastern Illinois beats Towson on Friday night and Jacksonville State pulls the upset on Saturday, the OVC will have a team in the title game on Jan. 4. Not bad for a conference that had gone nine years without a playoff win.
Meanwhile, the Big Sky is 1-3 so far in the playoffs, while the OVC is 4-1 – and that lone loss was Tennessee Tech’s loss last week to OVC rival EIU.
“It bothered me – I didn’t like how people talked about our conference, it wasn’t fair,” Clark said. “But the only way to get respect is to earn it.”
For the Gamecocks, respect has come in a pair of FCS playoff wins.
“That’s one monkey off our back,” Clark said.
A very good bye
The turning point in JSU’s season may have come on Oct. 19 – a bye week.
A week earlier, a banged-up squad lost 31-15 at Tennessee State. “We had 14 or 15 guys who couldn’t have played that open date,” Clark said.
With an extra week to heal, the Gamecocks beat Tennessee Tech 34-14 on Oct. 26, and have lost just once since. “It was a great bye week,” Clark said.