Surging Gamecocks eye fourth straight OVC title
By JEFF MEZYDLO
(STATS) - At the beginning of the season, Jacksonville State's visit to UT Martin on Saturday figured to mean the Ohio Valley Conference title was on the line.
That remains the case - for one of these teams.
With a victory in northwestern Tennessee this weekend, Jacksonville State (8-1, 6-0) will become the first school since Eastern Kentucky from 1981-84 to claim four consecutive OVC championships.
That would be quite an accomplishment - even for the business-as-usual Gamecocks, who pride themselves on sticking to a routine that's resulted in a 39-game regular-season winning streak against non-FBS opponents and a 30-game run within the league.
"We work like it is for the conference championship every week," JSU senior offensive lineman Tyler Scozzaro said.
Fourth-year coach John Grass insists his players live in the moment, a mindset that sounds completely cliche, but one that can't really be argued with considering the success the program has achieved since he took over.
"The way our culture is - we don't have to play for something; we have to work for something every day. We know where we want to be and we know what it takes to get there," said Grass, whose career winning percentage of .851 is the highest among all active Division I coaches.
"Our guys do a great job of buying into that on a daily basis. You don't need a bell or whistle to make this game more important than the last one."
Up to second in this week's STATS FCS Top 25, Jacksonville State has won seven in a row by an average of 21.7 points since losing 37-10 at Georgia Tech on Sept. 9. A Gamecocks defense that ranks fourth in the FCS by holding opponents to 251.4 total yards per contest limited Murray State to 153 in last weekend's 59-23 rout.
Behind 138 rushing yards and two touchdowns from senior Roc Thomas and three TD passes courtesy of Bryant Horn, JSU scored its most points since a 62-10 win over Sam Houston State in the 2015 national semifinals.
"I am very impressed with that they've done up to this point, and for the last four years," UT Martin coach Jason Simpson said.
The Skyhawks (5-4, 3-3) hoped to be right there with JSU in the mix for the league title, but injuries and a three-game losing streak within the OVC seemingly ended any championship hopes for a team that was ranked as high as 18th in late September. However, UT Martin has followed its slide with wins over Eastern Illinois and Southeast Missouri State in the last two weeks.
UTM freshman quarterback Dresser Winn continues to make strides after throwing for 224 yards with a TD and rushing for 61 last Saturday, also leading a game-winning drive against SEMO that was capped by Mitch Mersman's 22-yard field goal with one second left.
"They could be sitting at 7-1 or 8-2 coming into this game and they were picked second in this conference, and they are still that team to us," Grass said. "I don't see any reason why we wouldn't be ready to play on Saturday."
Jacksonville State has won four straight and seven of eight against the Skyhawks. The Gamecocks opened up a 26-0 lead in last season's 33-7 win.
Updated November 10, 2017