Mar. 18—JACKSONVILLE — Statistics that show eighth-ranked Jacksonville State's strength on defense abound, but none speaks better than a long look at how the Gamecocks fare on a short field.
In seven games this season, dating back through the fall portion of the schedule, JSU opponents have started 11 possessions in JSU territory. Only two of those possessions produced touchdowns.
It's a key to JSU's 6-1 start to this season and 3-0 start to OVC play, and it's worth pondering how different the Gamecocks' season might look with a flip of that stat.
"It's where you want to be good at, for sure," JSU coach John Grass said. "You want to be good on third downs, and you want to be good in the red zone.
"If you can hold them to field-goal attempts when they get in the red zone, that's a sign of a really good defense."
Other stats tell the same. JSU has won five straight games holding opponents under 100 rushing yards and seven straight games forcing at least one turnover.
JSU's defense has scored twice this season, on Kolbi Fuqua's 13-yard interception return at Florida State and Nicario Harper's 64-yard fumble return against Mercer.
Fuqua and Harper both went down with injuries at Tennessee-Martin last week, but then JSU's defense has had to work through tough situations.
Whether it be because of turnovers, returns or short punts, JSU's defense has started on its side of the field plenty. The success rate borders on astounding and stands as a recurring theme for the season.
Opponents have started possessions on JSU's 27-yard line, 20, 45, 41, 42, 15, 6, 40, 37, 48 and 42. Those drives resulted in two touchdowns, five field goals, two missed or blocked field goals, one interception and one fumble recovery.
Officially, a kickoff-return touchdown to start the Mercer game started at JSU's goal line, but JSU's defense wasn't on the field.
JSU's opponents have scored 29 points out of their 11 plus-side opportunities against JSU's defense. Assuming kicked extra points, they had chances to score 77.
Amazingly, JSU saw two games — Florida State and North Alabama — where no opponent's drive started on JSU's side of the field.
What is it about JSU's defense with its back to its goal line?
"It's just a mindset across the board as a defense that we're not going to back down to anybody and let them just score on us, because we're a team," said freshman defensive tackle Jaylen Swain, an Oxford High grad.
In the nine opponents' drives starting in JSU territory that did not end in touchdowns, opponents hardly moved. Two saw lost yardage, including an interception return that spotted JSU at Tennessee Tech's 48.
Twice the Gamecocks stood from deep in their territory in the third quarter against Tennessee Tech.
Christian Watson recovered a Zion Webb fumble at JSU's 15, but the Golden Eagles moved one yard in seven plays before Umstead Sanders blocked a field goal.
Seth Carlisle intercepted a Webb pass on the ensuing possession, spotting Tech at JSU's 6. With help from two Tech penalties, JSU allowed just one net yard in four plays before a field goal.
Had Tech scored touchdowns on those two possessions, a 27-10 JSU victory over a then-ranked opponent could've looked very different. Tech managed 10 points in four plus-side chances against JSU's defense.
"We believe in each other," defensive tackle Anthony Nesby said. "We all come out there and just play hard. We bow up when it's time and just do what we're coached to do."
Is there any magic besides bowing up? Not really, Grass said, other than the fact that JSU defends the run well, and a short field shrinks the passing game.
"We're just coming up with ways to make big plays down there, a tackle for a loss or a sack or something like that," he said. "The field gets shorter, and we're kind of stopping the run really well, so there's not any over-the-top throws people can do when they get in the red zone.
"You have to line up and run it, and we're pretty good at defending that."
Sports Writer Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter: @jmedley_star.