Apr. 24—JACKSONVILLE — A little before halftime, the Jacksonville State faithful could let out a sigh of relief.
With JSU comfortably ahead by three touchdowns at the time, this wasn't going to be another one of those FCS first-round games that the Gamecocks usually draw. JSU sailed through to the quarterfinals with a comfortable 49-14 win.
We've seen this too often: a good JSU team earns a high seed and home-field advantage but draws exactly the wrong first-round opponent. It either goes haywire or the Gamecocks have to fight for their lives. Saturday's matchup with gutty, non-scholarship Davidson had the makings of another one of those games.
Davidson runs the triple-option, which has befuddled past JSU teams in the rare instances in which they've faced it. The visiting Wildcats were in the postseason for the first time since a 1969 Tangerine Bowl berth, and they had something to prove.
They are precisely the type of team that would've been the national darling — if ESPN dared pay even a little bit of attention to the FCS playoffs.
And, that home-field advantage? The NCAA essentially blunted that with its puzzling across-the-board COVID-19 protocols, which are the same for outdoor sports like football as they are for inside sports like basketball and volleyball. That meant only 6,000 fans in the stands and no Marching Southerners, no cheerleaders and no Cocky.
Tell me how it makes sense not to allow them inside the stadium?
Still, the Gamecocks dominated, scoring five touchdowns on their first 24 offensive snaps. It was 49-7 until Davidson scored a gimme touchdown near the end.
For much of the game, it looked like one of those spring scrimmages when the first team gets to gang up on the second- and third-teamers. The JSU run game was so dominating, the Gamecocks probably would've gotten by with throwing only two passes — throw the ball on the field to start the game and throw it off the field at the end.
The only brief moment of worry came in the first half when Davidson marched for a long, humdrum touchdown drive to make it 7-7, as the Gamecocks infuriatingly couldn't stop the Wildcats on fourth down.
Then they picked off a Zion Webb pass, moved the ball to midfield and appeared ready to make another methodical march to the end zone. Before JSU managed to get the ball back, Davidson held a 30-6 advantage in number of plays run.
Talent, size, strength and depth won out, however, as the Gamecocks struck for a touchdown, finally stopped Davidson on fourth down to set up another TD, and recovered a kickoff that bounced funny to set up a third score.
JSU had the ball fewer than nine minutes in the first half but led 28-7. By then, it seemed silly to think Davidson had any chance at all.
It seems as if the Gamecocks would've had more of these types of playoff openers over the years. Since moving to the OVC in 2003, this is their 10th playoff appearance but only their fourth first-round win. And, it's only the second first-round win by more than a touchdown. They also smashed Samford by 41 points in their 2013 quarterfinal run.
Is this team different from all those others? That's hard to say. Any of those other nine JSU teams that made the playoffs would've run over this Davidson team, too. If Davidson wasn't just happy to be here, they should've been.
This edition of the Gamecocks certainly have been through it by playing 11 regular-season games over a pandemic-forced, fall-spring schedule. They've now won 10 games, and maybe all that football in such unimaginable circumstances has created a bond and toughness that no other JSU team has had the chance to build.
So, in the end, we couldn't tell much from Saturday's win. Even so, we didn't see anything that makes us think this team can't be a real threat.
It's a tough, battle-tested squad, and not even a triple-option team could derail them.
Now, if we only could get the NCAA to relent and allow the band, cheerleaders and Cocky into the stadium.
If not the band or cheerleaders, can't they at least allow Cocky inside? He always has his face covered, after all.
Senior Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.