JACKSONVILLE, Ala., – It hit Chris Schlichting immediately.
When the Eastern Washington offensive tackle stepped off the team’s charter airplane Thursday night in Birmingham, Alabama, he was met with humidity about as thick as a protein shake.
“It felt like I just walked into a pool,” Schlichting said as he made his way to the tarmac.
It’ll be muggier on Saturday when the fourth-ranked Eagles face 17th-ranked Jacksonville State at Burgess-Snow Field, which is expected to reach its 24,000-fan capacity.
“We hope the humidity percentage is really high on Saturday, I won’t hide that fact,” Jacksonville State coach John Grass said.
Late-summer afternoon kickoffs in northeast Alabama are inherently hot, but a game featuring two of the country’s tradition-rich Football Championship Subdivision programs – it’s the STATS FCS Game of the Week – comes with its own heat.
EWU (1-1) wants to prove its national legitimacy with a road win against unfamiliar nonconference foe.
Like many Northwest-raised EWU football players, tight end Jayce Gilder had never set foot on southern soil.
“Definitely looking forward to playing in front of a lot of fans in a big stadium and the challenge of playing Jacksonville State in a Top 25 matchup,” Gilder said.
For five-time defending Ohio Valley Conference champion Jacksonville State (1-1), a 29-game home regular-season winning streak is on the line, as is its reputation against good nonconference foes.
The Gamecocks, bounced in the early rounds of the FCS playoffs the previous three seasons, opened the season with a No. 6 ranking before they dropped their 2019 road opener at Southeastern Louisiana and bounced back to beat Chattanooga.
One of these two talent-stocked teams will have a 1-2 mark on Saturday.
“This is like a quarterfinal, semifinal-type game,” Grass said.
Will it be 2018 FCS national runner-up EWU, which rides the arms and legs of preseason Walter Payton Award candidate Eric Barriere and a decorated offensive line?
Or will be it Jacksonville State, the 2015 FCS national runner-up, which has a Payton candidate of its own in quarterback Zerrick Cooper?
“This is the game where we step into the team we want to be,” EWU defensive end Mitchell Johnson said. “With some corrections we want to make from last week, this is going to come full circle and show the nation the team we’re going to be the rest of the season.”
Jacksonville’s State’s roster is littered with Football Bowl Subdivision dropdowns and junior college transfers, including Cooper, a former Clemson quarterback, defensive end Tre’ Threat (Auburn) and running back Jaelen Greene (Cincinnati).
Cooper, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound dual threat, makes the Gamecocks go, totaling 758 passing yards, six touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in two games.
He has a cache of big, talented and experienced receivers, including 6-7 tight end Trae Barry (16 receptions, 234 yards) and 6-4 All-American Josh Pearson (106 yards).
But the Gamecocks entered the season young and inexperienced along their offensive and defensive fronts, and both units have struggled early.
Jacksonville State’s offensive front yielded six sacks in its season opener and. The Gamecocks’ defense still hasn’t registered a sack and is allowing 5.3 yards a rush.
The Eagles could run wild on Saturday if that trend continues.
EWU’s offense is back to its high-octane ways (521 yards per game), but an already limping running back group got thinner when versatile senior Dennis Merritt suffered what appeared to be a broken leg last week.
Jacksonville State cornerback Yul Gowdy welcomes the challenge.
“It’s going to be great for us. They always play at a high level, and we always try to play at a high level,” Gowdy said.
Third-year EWU head coach Aaron Best and the Eagles will host Jacksonville State in Cheney in 2021.
“These are the fun ones,” Best said. “When you don’t know who you’re preparing against, nobody knows anyone from a personnel standpoint, two great programs in a great setting, 20,000 fans expected – this is a big reason our players come to EWU to play in these games.”
Eastern Washington and Jacksonville State previously faced each other in the 2013 FCS quarterfinals at Roos Field in Cheney. The Eagles won 35-24.
EWU has dropped its past three FCS games against ranked non-Big Sky conference members on the road, falling at No. 1 North Dakota State in 2016 (50-44), No. 14 Northern Iowa in 2015 (38-35) and No. 4 Sam Houston State (49-34) in 2013.
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