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Adams holds key

EWU quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. rolls out of the pocket during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.  
COLIN MULVANY (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Protecting Adams lines up as EWU’s top job

Vernon Adams is making history this season, but so is Jacksonville (Ala.) State.

They’ll be on a collision course today in an FCS quarterfinal game at Roos Field, as the Eastern Washington quarterback tries to break some more records while the Gamecocks try to break him in two.

“I can’t let that happen,” Adams said after being reminded again of the hurt JSU put on McNeese State quarterback Cody Stroud, who was sacked 11 times last week as the unranked Gamecocks (11-3) won only their second FCS playoff game in history, 31-10.

Adams’ ability to stand, scramble and deliver is just one of many keys to today’s game, which will send the winner to a semifinal game next weekend against Towson, a matchup EWU would host if it beats Jacksonville State.

The other keys?

Adams and the offense producing touchdowns – not field goals – against a JSU defense that’s among the best in the nation at making opponents settle for three.

The Eagles’ defense winning more short-yardage battles than it loses against powerful JSU running back DaMarcus James, who sometimes takes a direct snap in the wildcat formation.

Eastern’s containment of Eli Jenkins, an athletic freshman quarterback who’s scored more touchdowns running (eight) than throwing (two).

There are more keys, involving JSU’s penchant for jumping out to big halftime leads, and third-ranked Eastern’s recent dominance in the third quarter, but today’s game should be defined by the athleticism of Adams.

The redshirt sophomore from Pasadena, Calif., owns a pass-efficiency rating of 187.1 that ranks fourth in FCS history, and his 51 touchdown passes this season are third all time nationally. Throw in his rushing total of 491 yards and Adams ranks fifth in FCS history with 4,794 all-purpose yards this season.

Adams is also one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Award, along with Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and Towson running back Terrance West.

“He is a great passer and great runner,” said first-year JSU coach Bill Clark, whose team was shredded 52-14 by EIU on Nov. 16. “I didn’t think I would see anyone that is comparable to Jimmy Garoppolo … but this guy does.

“He runs like a tailback and they have receivers all over the place that catch the ball.”

That includes redshirt freshman Cooper Kupp of Yakima, who has 81 receptions for 1,468 yards, 20 touchdowns and a strong chance to be named the FCS Freshman of the Year on Monday.

Adams also has a running game, which blossomed last week in a 41-17 playoff win over South Dakota State. Running back Quincy Forte rushed for 202 yards and the Eagles had 287 yards on the ground.

“I just have to do a great job of getting the ball to my playmakers, because they make me look good,” said Adams, whose mobility should keep JSU’s defensive linemen grasping at air.

Several Gamecock sacks against McNeese were coverage sacks against a team that prefers to run the ball. Adams’ mobility could negate the pass rush and extend plays, as Adams has done all season.

“I just need to put the ball in the right place, and all of us need to be talking and communicating,” Adams said.

On the other side of the ball, the JSU zone-read presents a unique challenge. James and Jenkins offer a hint of what Sam Houston State did to the Eagles in a 49-34 loss back in September, but operate a zone-read instead of the option.

In another twist, James sometimes gets the ball via direct snap in a wildcat formation.

“A lot of that stuff, we leave up to DaMarcus and he knows what we are looking for,” Clark said. “We will keep doing it, but there are some wrinkles that we haven’t shown yet.”

Then there’s Jenkins, who missed part of the season through injury but returned for the playoffs. Probably the best running quarterback the Eagles have faced all year, Jenkins averages 6.8 yards a rush; for the season he’s rushed for 835 yards and passed for only 760. The Gamecocks’ leading receiver is Josh Barge, who has 52 catches for 790 yards and two scores.