Typically, those teams caught in the mirror-image cliche might do one or two things alike on the field, but that’s about it. The teams in Jacksonville State’s second-round FCS playoff game at McNeese State Saturday night have so many similarities you might not be able to tell them apart if they switched uniforms.
Both score a lot of points. Both want to establish the run, but can throw the ball as well. Both won their first four non-conference games before their first loss. Both beat teams from the SWAC, barely beat their Division II opponents and won their FBS guarantee games.
The common thread even extends to the head coaches. Both were among the top high schools coaches in their respective states, winning state championships, before taking assistant jobs on the collegiate level.
And as if all that weren’t enough, both team’s game-breaking return threats — JSU sophomore Telvin Brown and McNeese senior Diontae Spencer — are receivers and both wear No. 4.
“It’s funny,” McNeese coach Matt Viator said. “When you watch them on film, No. 4 is really good. We have a No. 4, too, on returns. There are some similarities, no question. The main similarity is the speed factor.”
It has served both well.
McNeese (10-2), the No. 6 national seed playing in the postseason for the first time since 2009, ranks fourth nationally in scoring offense, averaging 42.5 points a game. Jacksonville State (10-3) ranks 20th at 36.4. The Cowboys have scored 50 or more five times and at least 40 in all but one of their wins. The Gamecocks have scored at least 40 six times, including each of their last four wins.
Over their last four games, the Cowboys have scored 161 points, JSU 179. Over the last five, McNeese has scored 216 to the Gamecocks’ 221.
“When you’re playing a good offense, your offense has got to produce,” Gamecocks coach Bill Clark said.
The Cowboys also ranked 18th nationally in rushing offense. Their two leading rushers, Marcus Wiltz (1,261) and Kelvin Bennett, have combined for nearly 2,000 yards and they have a fullback who is just as effective as JSU’s DaMarcus James in short yardage situations. Dylan Long has only 335 yards on 79 carries, but has scored 10 touchdowns.
James, now famous for his direct-snap scores from tight quarters, has rushed for 1,304 yards and 25 touchdowns in the Gamecocks’ 11th-ranked rushing attack. Combined with quarterback Eli Jenkins, they have rushed for 2,042 yards and 33 touchdowns.
“He’s bigger than Wiltz, but I think they’re very similar,” Viator said of James. “The thing that’s impressed me is James, like Wiltz, can run inside and outside. He’s a bigger back who can run inside and pound you, but he can run on the perimeter. I think he’s more similar in style (to Wiltz than Long) in the way he runs the ball.”
But the Cowboys aren’t just about the run. Senior quarterback Cody Stroud is the Southland Conference Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for 2,680 yards and a school-record-tying 27 touchdowns. He has thrown a touchdown pass in 17 straight games and at one point this season went more than 140 attempts without being intercepted.
While Jenkins has regained his confidence throwing the ball, the Gamecocks’ recognized passer is junior Max Shortell, the All-Ohio Valley Conference second-team quarterback to Eastern Illinois’ Payton Award finalist Jimmy Garoppolo. Shortell has missed the last two games with an injury, but Clark said the Minnesota transfer is “about 100 percent now.” How much he plays this week depends largely on what the Gamecocks believe they can best get away with against the Cowboys’ defense, which has been susceptible to big plays this season especially early in games
This will be the second week in a row the Gamecocks will have faced a quarterback who was his league’s offensive player of the year. Last week, they dogged Samford’s Andy Summerlin into 7-of-24 passing for 81 yards and sacked him six times. That got Viator’s attention. The Cowboys’ quarterbacks have only been sacked 14 times and hurried 10.
“We’re going to have to do better,” he said. “They did a great job in pressuring the quarterback, but they did a fantastic job of getting them behind the chains all night. If we get in those situations it’ll be tough sledding. Samford had no success on first down and ended with so many second-and-10s and third-and-15s it was incredible.”
Now, go to the schedule. Among their early-season non-conference wins, the Cowboys crushed Arkansas-Pine Bluff, barely beat Division II West Alabama (44-42) and drilled FBS South Florida in their opener 53-21. The Gamecocks beat Alabama State in their opener, Division II North Alabama in two overtimes and FBS Georgia State in overtime.
As far as the coaches go, Viator went 81-37 as a Louisiana high school coach and won a state title. Clark won 107 games at Prattville at two state crowns.
“It’s amazing somebody can do that,” Viator said of the transition from high school to college. “He’s a Jacksonville guy, too. I know he’s real excited about that. You can tell in his voice the passion he has for Jacksonville State. I think it’s pretty neat.”
And about those return men? Brown is back after missing the last two games of the regular season and his punt (10.2) and kickoff return (26.1) averages would be leading the OVC if he had enough attempts to qualify. Spencer had three return touchdowns in a game this year against Stephen F. Austin.
Put all the similarities together and the outcome boils down to one simple fact: “It seems like it’s going to come down to who executes the best,” JSU senior linebacker Robert Gray said.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.