Daniel Mayes, Staff Reporter
With the Jacksonville State football program coming off of 2015’s historic run to the National Championship game in Frisco, Texas, and star quarterback Eli Jenkins and remarkable receiver Josh Barge coming back, the Gamecocks seemed poised to make it right back to the same position in 2016.
Although JSU didn’t quite meet the massive expectations heaped upon them after the legendary 2015 campaign, last season was still a great one for Head Coach John Grass’ Gamecock squad.
JSU opened 2016 with a home victory over in-state Division II power North Alabama, then traveled to Baton Rouge, La. to face LSU.
The Gamecocks played the then FBS No. 21 Bayou Bengals to a scoreless first quarter and even took a 3-0 lead, but LSU rallied to put down JSU 34-13.
The road loss to an SEC foe would be the only setback of the regular season for JSU. However, the Gamecocks rebounded the next week by squeaking past the Chanticleers of Coastal Carolina 27-26 to kick off a nine game win streak.
JSU once again dominated their Ohio Valley Conference competition, finishing with an unblemished 7-0 OVC record for the third straight time under Grass.
The Gamecocks closed the regular season with a 33-7 win over UT Martin to give them a 10-1 record and clinch the third consecutive OVC title for JSU.
JSU thrived in 2016 despite some key injuries limiting the Gamecock offense from reaching the same level as it did in 2015.
Josh Barge started off the season injured and never really regained his form, finishing with just 41 catches for 662 yards and two touchdowns, down from his 2015 totals of 92-1145-11.
Without his number one option completely healthy and battling injuries himself, Eli Jenkins also struggled to match his 2015 output in the final season of his storied JSU career.
Jenkins stumbled to just a 49.8% completion rate after converting on 60.7% of his passing attempts in 2015 and tossed just 11 touchdowns, down from 21.
Auburn transfer and key running back Roc Thomas also missed three games with a concussion near the end of the season, throwing the Gamecock offense into further disarray.
JSU was still able to run past their competition by their competition thanks to a dominant defense and some flashes of brilliance from the sometimes stifled offense.
Following the regular season, Jacksonville State was selected as the three seed in the FCS Playoffs.
JSU’s offensive issues finally came back to haunt them in their first playoff contest, as the Gamecocks were upset by unseeded Youngstown State, who went on to become National Runnersup, 40-24, ending the Gamecocks’ season and the careers of Jenkins and Barge.
JSU kept pace in the first half and trailed just 20-17 at the break, but the Gamecocks were unable to muster more than seven second-half points as the Penguins pulled away.
Jacksonville State closed out the 2016 season ranked sixth and seventh in the final STATS and FCS Coaches Polls respectively.
The Gamecocks will hold their annual J-Day game tonight at 7 p.m. at Burgess-Snow Field.