MONTGOMERY – The third quarter proved to be a big one for the Jacksonville State football team in head coach Bill Clark’s debut on Saturday, when the Gamecocks scored all 24 points and then held on for a 24-22 win over Alabama State.
After gaining just 151 yards in a scoreless first half that saw the Hornets (0-1) take a 6-0 lead into the locker room, the Gamecocks (1-0) gained 183 in the third quarter, outscoring ASU 24-3 in the process.
The Hornets mounted a little rally in the fourth quarter, scoring twice in a four-minute stretch. The Gamecock defense held on a two-point try with 7:33 to play and then ended any hope for the Hornets when Brenton Tolson picked off Daniel Duhon with 48 seconds to play.
In Clark’s debut as a collegiate head coach, he became just the fourth JSU head coach to win his debut and the first since Jim Fuller in 1977. More importantly, he got the new era of Gamecock football off to a fast start.
Redshirt freshman Eli Jenkins earned the starting nod at quarterback for the Gamecocks after a neck-and-neck battle with junior Max Shortell and sophomore Kyle West, but it would be Shortell that put the JSU offense on his back during that decisive third quarter.
The transfer entered the game early in the second quarter and ended up throwing for 216 yards and two touchdowns on 13-for-23 passing. He also ran for 22 of JSU’s 108 yards on the ground.
Eight Gamecock receivers caught at least one pass, four of which caught their first career passes during the game. Sophomore Telvin Brown caught a career-best five passes for 76 yards and a touchdown to lead that receiving corps.
Defensively, sophomore Brandon Bender racked up 14 tackles, 10 more than his previous career high, and sophomore Jermaine Hough added nine. Five different players put sacks in their stat column.
Preseason All-American Isaiah Crowell ran for 93 of the Hornets’ 201 rushing yards, while Daniel Duhart completed 18 of his 36 passes for a score and 204 yards. His top target DeMario Bell caught five of those passes for 115 yards.
Sophomore Hamish MacInnes kept the Gamecocks in the game early, booming big punt after big punt. He ended the night with a 46.4-yard average on eight kicks, pinning two inside of the 20 and one on the ASU one.
Bobby Wenzig was the Hornets’ big scorer, connecting on all three of his field goal tries and his only PAT try.
Defense was the story early on. Both teams combined for just 114 total yards and five first downs in the first quarter, a period that also saw a combined seven punts.
Special teams set up the game’s first score early in the second quarter. Cyrus Malcolm’s 49-yard punt return set the Hornets up at the Gamecocks 29 and, after a stop by the JSU defense, the Hornets’ Wenzig connected on a 42-yard field goal that put ASU up 3-0 with 11:17 left in the half.
Wenzig tacked three more points on just over six minutes later after a stalled ASU drive led to a 35-yard kick that stretched the score to 6-0 in ASU’s favor.
The Gamecocks mounted a threat late in the second half with a drive that started at their own 28 with 4:53 to play. Shortell went to work, connecting on long gains to Troymaine Pope, Josh Barge and Brown and put the Gamecocks on the one-yard line. As the clock ticked toward the half, DaMarcus James was stopped to allow the Hornets to take their 6-0 lead into the half.
The Gamecocks went to work to start the 2nd half, taking the opening kick 68 yards in just eight plays. Shortell orchestrated the scoring drive and used a 20-yard pass to Spencer Goffigan to set JSU up on the Hornets’ two. Pope punched it in on the next play, capping the drive that took just 2:29 off of the clock. Griffin Thomas’ extra point gave the Gamecocks their first lead at 7-6 and snapped a six-quarter scoreless streak for the Gamecock offense.
Alabama State answered on the ensuing drive, taking the ball 42 yards on 11 plays before stalling and having to turn to Wenzig again. He was true from 35 yards this time and put his team in front 9-6 with 9:25 left in the third quarter.
The scoring continued on JSU’s ensuing possession, one that took nine plays to go 75 yards for another score. Shortell found freshman Anthony Johnson for a 13-yard pass early in the drive, the first reception of the Maplesville, Ala., native’s career. His second came six plays later and resulted in a 23-yard JSU touchdown.
There was an answer on the next drive but it was the Gamecock defense that came up with it. Rob Gray stripped the ball from quarterback Daniel Duhart and Jamill Lot fell on it, setting up the Gamecocks on the ASU 45.
Shortell wasted no time, finding Telvin Brown over the top for another touchdown, JSU’s second in 66 seconds, to stretch the lead to 21-9 with just under six minutes left in the third quarter.
Another defensive stop saw JSU take the ball and drive back into the ASU red zone, but the Gamecocks had to settle for a 22-yard field goal from Thomas that gave them a 24-9 lead late in the third quarter.
Alabama State got its first turnover early in the fourth quarter, and it led to the Hornets’ first touchdown of the game. Shortell’s pass over the middle was icked off by Maurice Tate, who returned it 16 yards to the Gamecock six. Jahaad Coleman ran it in on the first play of the drive and cut JSU’s lead to 24-16 with 11:29 to play.
Another special teams play set up the next score, and it wasn’t in JSU’s favor. Wenzig’s 51-yard punt was muffed by Brown, and the Hornets’ Marquis Lovett recovered at the Gamecock nine. Two plays later, Duhart found Chris Gilzeane fo an eight-yard touchdown, but the Hornets’ two-point attempt failed with JSU clinging to a 24-22 lead with just under eight minutes remaining.
The Gamecocks will open their six-game home schedule on Saturday, when they host Jacksonville University at 6 p.m.