Jacksonville State is coming off an open date, and has one more “regular” week before the schedule takes an unprecedented turn.
The Gamecocks (2-1) host Eastern Michigan (2-1) at 4 p.m. Saturday at Burgess-Snow Stadium in their third of four non-conference games. After that, JSU plays five straight mid-week games (two on Tuesday, two on Wednesday and one on Thursday) as part of Conference USA’s new broadcast deal with ESPN.
“Every game is a big game, but then we have five straight mid-week games and it’s going to be quite the grind,” Jax State coach Rich Rodriguez said. “I think it goes from five days to six days to six days to seven days or something, and so it’s going to hit us pretty quick. But we had a good open week. I thought we got better in a couple of areas. We got one or two guys healthy, but unfortunately, we have one or two guys hurt as well from the last game. So we’ll adjust and move on.”
One of the injured players Rodriguez mentioned is junior running back Ron Wiggins, who is likely out for the year after suffering a shoulder/chest muscle injury that required surgery in the first quarter two weeks ago vs. Coastal Carolina. Wiggins, a Jacksonville native, ran for 156 yards and two touchdowns prior to going down, providing a solid 1-2 punch at running back with Louisiana-Monroe transfer Malik Jackson.
The Gamecocks also have a fluid situation at quarterback, where both Zion Webb and Logan Smothers have played extensively this season. Webb played all but one series in the season-opener vs. UTEP (a 17-14 win), then Smothers went most of the way the following week against East Tennessee State (a 49-3 victory).
Webb started last time out vs. Coastal Carolina (a 30-16 loss), but Smothers finished up after entering the game late in the third quarter with the Gamecocks down 23-9. Rodriguez said competition will continue this week.
“The way I look at it, we have two starters in Zion and Logan,” Rodriguez said. “We’ll see who performs better this week in practice. I wouldn’t hesitate to have either one of them start. Logan has done some good things and he’s learning, but Zion knows our system and he’s reliable, too. “We’re probably going to game plan with both of them in mind and figure out who the first guy is probably by after Thursday’s practice.”
Eastern Michigan has beaten Howard and UMass this season, with its lone loss coming at Minnesota. The Eagles have been a bowl team in four of the last five years under long-time coach Chris Creighton.
However, EMU trailed in the fourth quarter last week vs. UMass, needing a 50-yard touchdown pass from Austin Smith to Hamze El-Zayat with 2:26 remaining to finally take the lead for good and winning 19-17. The Eagles missed the extra point, however, and had to hold on in the final minutes as the Minutemen reached EMU territory.
Jax State enters the game as about a touchdown favorite, according to the various sports books.
“What I saw (on film) they like to fly around,” said Jackson, who has rushed for 253 yards and two touchdowns this season. “So it’s going to definitely be high-energy out there. But I think we’ll fly around the best. They play hard, with the hardest. And they’ve had a lot of success recently in the turnover department.”
Jacksonville State has been mostly solid on defense this season, allowing just 15.7 points per game and having forced seven turnovers. The Gamecocks have limited opponents to just 12-for-40 (30%) on third down.
One JSU player who had a career game vs. Coastal Carolina is nickel safety Kolbi Fuqua, a sixth-year senior from Cordova. He totaled 18 tackles and two tackles for loss, but wasn’t happy with the way he and his team performed in the second half vs. the Chanticleers.
“A lot of things happened in the second half where we weren’t locking in our keys and stuff like that,” Fuqua said. “We just had to get in the playbook this week, everything like that. And we’ve been studying Eastern Michigan. We moved on past Coastal, to be honest. It was just a game that you had to mark down and learn from and move on.”
Saturday’s Jax State-Eastern Michigan game will stream live via ESPN+.