Jacksonville State the team to beat in 2016

Sean Hastings, Sports Editor

Devin Church
File Photo
Devin Church

When it came to scoring in 2015, Jacksonville State had no problem putting up points and shutting down other teams’ offenses. The Gamecocks were the 2015 Ohio Valley Conference Champs and are picked to repeat in 2016.

Jacksonville State has been the preseason favorite to win the OVC in five of the last seven years and have three conference titles since the 2009 season, including a three-way tie with Tennessee Tech and Eastern Kentucky in 2011.

The Gamecocks won nearly all of their OVC contests by wide margins, except against Tennessee-Martin, who lost by one touchdown. Jacksonville State lost to Auburn in overtime, 27-20, in its second game of the season.

Offensively, the Gamecocks scored 584 points, 194 more than Tennessee-Martin, who scored the second most. Their defense allowed 299 points and allowed less than 20 points per game on average.

Eastern hosted the Gamecocks on Nov. 7 — a matchup that would ultimately decide the OVC champion. Both teams were undefeated in OVC play entering the game, and Eastern hung with Jacksonville State in the first half with a 3-3 tie, but Jacksonville State’s offense exploded in the second half to score 21 points to win big over the Panthers, 24-3.

Kicker Nick Bruno put the Panthers out in front early in the second quarter with a 23-yard field goal at the 14:12 mark to cap off a 16-play, 91-yard drive. With 15 seconds left in the half, Jacksonville State’s kicker came through with a 23-yarder of his own to tie the game.

Eastern’s offense put up 122 yards in the first half with Jacksonville State, and the Gamecocks put up 170 on the Panthers, but the Panther defense forced two punts and stopped the Gamecocks on downs twice.

And again, with 15 seconds left in the third, quarterback Eli Jenkins hit Dalton Screws for a 43-yard touchdown pass to give the Gamecocks a 10-7 lead.

Jenkins was named the FCS ADA National Quarterback of the Year.

Eastern lost quarterback Jalen Whitlow, but it returns 15 starters, including nine offensive for the 2016, all hungry to build off of last year and take the OVC championship from Jacksonville State.

The Panthers’ offense put up 283 points in 2015 with red-shirt senior running back Devin Church leading the way with nine touchdowns.

“I left a lot of yards out on that field though, and (I’m) looking forward to being that playmaker again for our team this season,” Church said.

Eastern was picked to finish third in the OVC, but those preseason rankings go out the window when the teams hit the field next week. Eastern opens up its season at home against Western on Sept. 1, and will play its first OVC game against Austin Peay at home on Sept. 24.

Sean Hastings can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].