'Hawks open OVC vs. defending champs

Saturday, September 24, 2005

On the surface, Jacksonville State might not look like a football team heavily favored to win its third straight Ohio Valley Conference title.

But, despite three narrow losses against a tough nonconference schedule, coach Jack Crowe believes this version of the Gamecocks will prove better than his previous two units.

"I have every confidence that we're going to be better than any of our two previous football teams that have played in this league," Crowe said.

The Gamecocks will try to start proving that tonight -- while at the same time Southeast Missouri State hopes it can make Crowe sing a different tune.

JSU and Southeast kick off their OVC schedules with a 6 p.m. game at Houck Stadium. Both squads are 0-3, and the Redhawks, like the Gamecocks, have faced a difficult nonconference schedule.

"There's no doubt they're an excellent football team," Southeast coach Tim Billings said. "They've played a really tough schedule, and they're probably the best 0-3 team in the nation.

"But we've played a really tough schedule, too."

While Southeast has been outscored 136-56 against Division I-AA power Southern Illinois, Division I-A Kent State and solid Division I-AA Missouri State -- the closest loss was 21 points to Kent State -- JSU has been outscored 93-81 with no defeat greater than seven points.

First came a 37-35 loss to Division I-AA power Furman, which scored a touchdown on the game's final play. Next was a somewhat surprising 21-18 loss to Division I-AA Tennessee-Chattanooga, which scored a touchdown with 10 seconds left.

And last Saturday, the Gamecocks rallied from a 21-point deficit only to fall short 35-28 against Division I-A Alabama-Birmingham.

It all adds up to JSU's first 0-3 start since 1996 -- and some mixed emotions from Crowe, who still believes the Gamecocks' tough early schedule will pay dividends.

"We took on a tougher [nonconference] schedule by choice, with the idea that whether we were up to it or not, we would get better by it," Crowe said. "I think we have played three really good football teams, three teams we could have beaten, and I think we played better in those three games than in any three previous [nonconference] games. But we still haven't proven we can win"

The Gamecocks have proven they can win in the OVC since joining the league in 2003, capturing consecutive titles with 7-1 conference records.

"I think we had an advantage of being unknown, but the history of our program has come through," said Crowe, noting that JSU was a consistent Division II power before moving up to Division I-AA in the early 1990s and struggling for a while. "We just had to ramp up to Division I-AA. Once we did that, it's the same program as in Division II."

Based on JSU's recent OVC success, and the return of several key players, the Gamecocks received 15 of 18 first-place votes in the league's preseason poll.

"There's a reason they're picked to win the conference," Billings said.

Perhaps the biggest reason is quarterback Maurice Mullins, who led the OVC in passing efficiency and completion percentage last year, although the Gamecocks were primarily a running team.

While JSU's offense still relies on the run, Mullins is playing a bigger role this year. He has completed 63.3 percent (38 of 60) for 492 yards, with four touchdowns and one interception. Mullins, also a dangerous runner, threw for a career-high 259 yards against Alabama-Birmingham.

"I think he's emerging as the player we thought he would be," Crowe said.

Picking up the slack left by the loss of Oscar Bonds, who completed his eligibility last year after rushing for nearly 1,300 yards and 19 touchdowns, is Clay Green, a speedster who has 271 yards and is averaging 4.8 yards per carry.

Green also is one of the nation's most dangerous kickoff returners, averaging 30.5 yards, including a 96-yard touchdown against Furman.

Defensively, three key players entering the season have been lost to eligibility issues, and JSU has started somewhat slow, allowing more than 415 yards per game.

"They're a lot like SIU and Missouri State," Billings said. "They run the football well, they're tough and physical, and on defense they're really fast."

Billings hopes Southeast's struggling offense will get a lift from junior college transfer Kevin Ballatore, who will make his first start at quarterback tonight after impressing during the second half against Missouri State last Saturday.

"He gave us a spark and hopefully he can keep it up," Billings said.

For the fourth week in a row, Southeast figures to be a decided underdogs. To have a chance at upsetting a team they lost to 47-9 last year, Billings knows the Redhawks will have to cut down on mistakes that have plagued them so far.

"It's going to be a task. We'll really have to play well," Billings said. "We'll have to protect the ball, cut down on penalties and make some big plays. If we do that, we can play with them."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: