Babers is in charge of the second-ranked team in the FCS, a team that has run over virtually everybody it has played.
When he heard the Gamecocks put a 68-10 hurting on a team his own squad beat by five touchdowns six weeks earlier, he didn’t cower with worry. He called it a “blessing” because now there will be no mysteries when the two hottest teams in the Ohio Valley Conference clash on what is expected to be a cold Saturday in Charleston, Ill.
“What a blessing, because now our football knows exactly what’s coming in here,” Babers said Tuesday. “There’s no we’re this and they’re that. This team beat a team we highly respect and to put a score like that on Eastern Kentucky, they’ve completely gathered our attention.
“There are no surprises. If they can come up here and do what they need to do against us, there are no excuses. We know how good a football team that’s rolling in here and we need to be ready to go.”
Jacksonville State coach Bill Clark was still excited about the Gamecocks’ wildest romp in their Ohio Valley Conference history early in the week. They racked up more than 500 yards of offense, scored on 11 of their last 13 possessions and held their third straight opponent to fewer than 300 yards in handing the OVC’s most storied football program its worst conference loss ever.
But he knows it’s all out there to see.
“It was really neat just to watch our guys be that excited and focused attention to detail,” Clark said. “All those things don’t happen against a good team unless a lot of things go right.
“But there’s not going to be any sneaking up now, them not expecting us. We’re going to get their very best effort and that’s what we should expect.”
A win Saturday, he said, would go a long way to taking their reputation up a notch.
“We think we are a pretty good team; we want to be a great team,” Clark said. “That’s the next step for us – what can we do to be a great team, and to be a great team you would have to go beat a great team on the road. That’s kind of where we are next.”
For both these teams the conversation starts on offense, but that may not be the determining factor in the game.
At EIU, it starts with the record-setting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, but the Panthers (9-1, 6-0) showed a running game last week. They rushed for more than 300 yards for the first time since 2007 and for only the second time this season scored more touchdowns on the ground than through the air.
The Gamecocks (8-2, 4-2), meanwhile, lead the OVC in rushing and have one of the most powerful backs in the country in DaMarcus James. And while not as prolific as Garoppolo, their passing game complements the running attack well.
Coaches around the league and around the country – not to mention the playoff selection committee – will be keeping an eye on this game. It’s a general consensus that in a game that could blow out a fuse in the scoreboard, the two defenses will have the biggest impact on the outcome.
“I think any time teams have something they’re good at, it’s always the other thing that determines the game,” Babers said.
Both teams have an active defensive front, a deep corps of veteran linebackers who can blitz and cover, corners who will challenge receivers and bone-jarring safeties who can play the run or pass.
The Gamecocks lead the OVC in sacks and red zone defense, are second in scoring defense and No. 1 against the pass within the league.
The Panthers lead the league in scoring defense in OVC games and are fourth in the league in all games against the run. Tennessee Tech scored 21 points on them in a 56-21 loss Nov. 2 and Golden Eagles coach Watson Brown said they were the “hardest” points his team had to score all year.
“I think the reason it gets overlooked sometimes is because of the numbers,” Babers said. “But if we played a slowed-down offense and protected our defense it would be the No. 1 or No. 2 in the conference and highly ranked in the nation.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.