But at the same time, he knew there were no guarantees if the Gamecocks didn’t execute on the field.
Well, thanks to their second straight overtime win, 32-26 over Georgia State on Saturday in the Georgia Dome, the Gamecocks are 4-0 today.
They were forced into overtime by a field goal on the final play of regulation, held their breath as a Will Lutz field goal attempt went wide in overtime, then won it when DaMarcus James scored his third touchdown of the game on a 2-yard run.
“It’s just a great feeling,” Clark said. “I’m so happy for these guys. They found a way and they persevered, to come in and buy into what somebody’s telling you.
“We’ve got a small number of guys we brought in in January. These guys didn’t know us from Adam’s house cat in January, and I’m telling you we put it on them. We have demanded so much out of them in every way you can do it.
“Sometimes you worry are we asking too much out of them. I think they’ve responded and I think that shows up in these close games.”
It was the first time in school history the Gamecocks have gone overtime in back-to-back weeks. Last week, five field goals by Griffin Thomas helped them get past Division II North Alabama.
It’s also the second time in this building they needed overtime to beat the Panthers. They won the first game of the series 34-27 in 2010. It’s their first win over an FBS opponent since beating Ole Miss in 2010.
On Saturday, they survived giving up 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the game and some loose play on special teams to win.
All three of James’ touchdown runs came on direct snaps, and covered 1, 1 and 2 yards – and all three gave the Gamecocks leads.
His first came after Pierre Warren nearly scored on a fumble recovery and JSU ahead 7-6 in the first quarter. His second, capping a 90-yard drive, put the Gamecocks up 13-9 in the second. His third won the game.
“It’s such a good play,” Clark said. “We’ve had it in for a while. We were going to use it, then (James) got hurt last week and we were going to use at the end when Buster (Troymaine Pope) got hurt and we’ve not worked Miles (Jones) enough on it.
“Now, we have the ability to do it with everybody if we need it. It’s a tough play to defend if you’ve got a yard or two because you’ve got such heavy personnel in the game.”
James, who hurt his ankle on the first play of last week’s game, carried the ball all six plays of the winning possession. He finished with 41 yards on 16 carries.
“They told me on the sideline they were going to keep giving it to me, and I was going to do all I could to get in the end zone,” James said.
The Gamecocks entered the game 10-point favorites, but never had it easy even when they led by two touchdowns going into the fourth quarter.
On the first play from scrimmage, Panthers quarterback Ronnie Bell hit Albert Wilson on a 75-yard pass to open the scoring. It was the first time a team scored on its first play against JSU since Georgia Tech broke off a 74-yard run a couple miles up the road in 2009.
Wilson, one of the FBS active leaders in all-purpose and receiving yardage, caught seven passes for 158 yards. Bell completed 16 of 41 passes for 250 yards passing and rushed for 57 more.
JSU took a 23-9 lead into the fourth, but it took the Panthers (0-4) fewer than four minutes to tie it. C.J. Scott blocked a Hamish MacInnes punt and recovered it in the end zone, then shortly after Telvin Brown fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Bell hit Robert Davis on a 10-yard touchdown pass to make it 23-23.
The Gamecocks retook the lead with fewer than three minutes to play when Thomas, the hero of last week’s win over North Alabama, hit a 34-yard field goal to put the Gamecocks up 26-23 with 2:58 left.
The JSU defense did all it could to keep the Panthers from breaking their hearts on a last-second touchdown, but Bell kept finding ways to keep moving the chains. The Panthers got to the JSU 9, but the Gamecocks forced him into three incompletions and Lutz’s 26-yard field goal to tie it.
The Gamecocks were just as relentless in the overtime. They stopped the Panthers’ first play for no gain, forced Bell to throw long on second down and Robert Gray nearly intercepted him on third down.
Lutz’s go-ahead 42-yard field goal was wide left.
The Gamecocks then put the game in James’ hands, and the bruising back delivered.
“We looked really strong in overtime,” Clark said. “We hold them to three-and-out and then all of a sudden go down and score a touchdown. That kind of showed you where our mentality’s at. That was improvement from last week.
“I think we found our identity on offense in the grand scheme of things.”
The Gamecocks played both of their quarterbacks in the game. Eli Jenkins started the game, hit on all five of his pass attempts and scored a second-quarter touchdown, but banged his hand again and it was Max Shortell directing the offense down the stretch.
Shortell finished the game throwing for 235 yards on 12-of-27 passing. Josh Barge caught eight passes for 124 yards.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.