Apr. 24—JACKSONVILLE — Forgive Jacksonville State fans for being of two minds about the fourth-seeded Gamecocks’ FCS playoff opener against Davidson on Saturday.
On the positive side, it’s a strength-on-strength matchup. Davidson (4-2) runs the ball, and JSU (9-2) stops the run.
The little devil whispering in the other ear, though, reminds Gamecock faithful of playoff upsets past. Then comes that trigger football term … triple option.
Kennesaw State much?
KSU runs a triple-option offense and upset JSU 17-7 in the second round in 2017. The Owls possessed the ball 34 minutes and 47 seconds that forgettable day, and Davidson averages 33:58.
The great equalizer offense, just the ticket for a program that doesn’t award football scholarships, should make for an interesting challenge for JSU’s so-far stellar defense.
“Any time you’ve got to play that, it makes you a little nervous defensively,” JSU coach John Grass said.
There’s no doubting JSU’s heft against the run. The Gamecocks have held nine consecutive opponents under 100 rushing yards. They’ve allowed just two runs of 20 or more yards in 10 games, spanning 295 opposition carries.
That strength of JSU’s defense explains why the Gamecocks have such a strong track record of stopping opponents on a short field. Opponents can pass against a more spread-out defense to get down the field, but passing lanes tighten dramatically closer to the goal line.
Being able to run matters in red-zone circumstances, and what to do with an opponent that doesn’t need much pass balancing to score?
Davidson averages 293.8 rushing yards a game. They do it by spreading out defenses close to the line of scrimmage.
That’s what triple-option offenses do by design.
As for similarities to Kennesaw State, Davidson brings one important difference.
“Dive-quarterback-pitch, they’re very similar,” Grass said. “There’s a lot of difference, though, because they do it out of a gun formation instead of under center.”
Yes, Davidson can pass out of its option game. Lefty quarterback Tyler Phelps passes 12.6 times a game and has a 144.2 quarterback rating to go with his 323 rushing yards in six games.
It adds up to a witch’s brew for a JSU defense that has played more trendy offenses all the season.
Grass said JSU likely won’t be able to deploy its “dime” package as often as normal. The Gamecocks go with that personnel grouping when they get opponents in second down and long yardage.
The Gamecocks will continue to rotate lots of defensive linemen to keep fresh legs on the field, but stopping the triple option comes down to making tackles.
“It puts you in one-on-one tackling situations, defensively,” Grass said. “It’ll make you play assignment football, so it slows you down a little bit.
“You don’t want your pursuit to the ball to slow down. We’ve got to get a lot of folks to the ball and get the ball down on the ground.”
Sports Writer Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter: @jmedley_star.