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Jacksonville State takes league lead despite not playing
Jacksonville State received a boost in its quest for a second consecutive Ohio Valley Conference title without even taking the field.
The Gamecocks had an open date Saturday -- but by the end of the evening they found themselves as the only team with just one conference loss.
Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee Tech entered the weekend each with one league defeat but both went down, opening the door for the Gamecocks to once again grab total control of their own destiny in the OVC race.
"Lucky as we can be," Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe said during Tuesday's weekly OVC teleconference. "We still have to play well enough to deserve it. I don't think there are any more gifts. ... It does give us some certainty about what we can control. We're very fortunate."
Jacksonville State (6-1, 4-1) even moved up five spots in The Sports Network Division I-AA poll despite not playing, climbing from 20th to 15th. The Gamecocks are the OVC's only nationally ranked team.
But Crowe was quick to point out that the Gamecocks still have plenty of work to do in order to finish the year with just one OVC loss and earn the league's automatic I-AA playoff berth for the second straight season.
First comes this week's rivalry game with fellow Alabama school Samford followed by a contest at Eastern Illinois, which is one of four conference squads also still very much in the championship hunt. The Gamecocks finish the season against Southeast Missouri State University.
"We got lucky that we got a chance to control our own destiny if we can win out, but we've got three teams to play that all won last week and are teams that are getting better, it seems like," Crowe said. "I think this game is the most important game of the year for us. We have a rival, somebody we live with, somebody we share the media spotlight with in this part of the state."
If Jacksonville State does suffer another loss, that would increase the likelihood of multiple ties for the title -- meaning things could get really crazy in order to decide the automatic playoff spot.
Murray State (5-4, 4-2), Eastern Illinois (4-4, 3-2), Eastern Kentucky (3-5, 3-2) and Tennessee Tech (5-3, 2-2) will all be crossing their fingers that Jacksonville State falls again. Eastern Illinois could take care of that on its own in two weeks.
"I've never seen it this close. It's been a bizarre year to say the least, and still a lot of key games left to be played," Panthers coach Bob Spoo said of the scrambled conference race.
Heading into the final legs of the conference season, only four of the nine teams -- Samford (4-5, 3-3), Southeast Missouri (2-6, 2-3), Tennessee State (3-5, 1-3) and Tennessee-Martin (2-7, 1-5) -- have all but been eliminated from title contention.
"It's been amazing just watching from the outside each week. ... You look at the scores, you don't know who's going to beat who," Southeast Missouri coach Tim Billings said. "At this point in time, anybody in this league can beat anybody on a given day."
Murray State and Samford took down the previous one-loss squads. The Racers won at Eastern Kentucky 19-16 in overtime, while the Bulldogs held off visiting Tennessee Tech 20-17.
"We were excited to get a win on the road. We hadn't won on the road," Murray State coach Joe Pannunzio said. "We were very fortunate to beat a good Eastern Kentucky team."
Also Saturday, host Eastern Illinois sent Tennessee State to its fifth straight loss, 34-24, and Southeast Missouri snapped a three-game losing streak by beating visiting Tennessee-Martin 35-7.
This week's key game is Eastern Illinois at Tennessee Tech. One of those teams will receive its third conference loss to fall out of title contention.
* Tennessee State senior tailback Charles Anthony is second on the OVC's career rushing list with 4,574 yards. The record of 5,149 yards is held by former Eastern Kentucky star Markus Thomas, who played for the Colonels from 1989 to 1992.
OVC players comprise one-fifth of the nation's top 25 Division I-AA rushers. Anthony is third with an average of 153.6 yards per game, followed by Tennessee-Martin's Donald Chapman (14th, 113.1), Eastern Illinois' Vincent Webb (16th, 111.8), Eastern Kentucky's C.J. Hudson (20th, 105.5) and Jacksonville State's Oscar Bonds (22nd, 103.1).
Samford dual-threat quarterback Ray Nelson has thrown for more than 200 yards and rushed for more than 100 yards in the same game three times this season. He leads the OVC and is second nationally in total offense with 350.4 yards per game. Nelson has passed for an OVC-best 2,447 yards and ranks seventh in rushing with 707 yards.
Tennessee Tech wide receiver Drew Hixon continues to make progress from a serious head injury suffered Sept. 11 against South Florida. Hixon, who was in a coma for several weeks, is now talking, eating and participating in an intensive rehabilitation therapy program as he begins the road to recovery.