Jacksonville State, led by former Michigan and West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez, starts FBS era with win over UTEP

By Stretch Jenkinson

Head coach Rich Rodriguez leads the Gamecocks into FBS territory

JACKSONVILLE – On a blazing afternoon in arguably the most significant game in Jacksonville State University’s vaunted football history, the Gamecocks dug deep and won when things looked bleak in their first game as a Football Bowl Subdivision member.

Veteran safety Jeremiah Harris picked off a UTEP pass at the Jax State 22 with 1:15 left as the Gamecocks held on to defeat favored UTEP 17-14 before a raucous crowd of 17,982 at Burgess-Snow Field.

The Miners elected not to attempt a 40-yard field goal after driving from their 12 to Jax State’s 24 in the game’s waning moments, only to see Harris come up with the game-sealing interception on fourth down.

Both programs entered the season with lowered expectations in the eyes of the CUSA media members. Jax State (1-0) was picked seventh in the preseason poll while the Miners, 5-7 a year ago, were picked to finish sixth in the nine-team league.

A clutch interception by Jeremiah Harris sealed the win for the Gamecocks

“It’s a great night for Jax State,” said head coach Rich Rodriguez. “Expectations are rightfully not very high because not very many teams make the transition successfully right away.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do. But I’d rather teach off a win than a loss. We’ll learn from it, get better from it and get ready for the next one.”

Jax State (1-0) led 10-7 at halftime despite being limited to 110 total yards.

Placekicker Alen Karajic was true on his first field goal try of the season, booting a 41-yarder with 4:57 remaining in the first quarter for the Gamecocks’ first points as an FBS program.

Ron Wiggins punched in Jax State’s first FBS touchdown early in the second quarter to stretch the lead to 10-0. Wiggins ran in from the Miners 4 to finish off a 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive for his seventh career rushing TD.

Karajic added the extra point with 13:26 left in the second quarter.

UTEP didn’t get on the scoreboard until the final play of the first half. The Miners covered 74 yards in nine plays in the last 1:31, with Deion Hankins diving in from the 1 as the clock struck zero. The extra point trimmed the Gamecocks’ cushion to 10-7 at intermission.

Malik Jackson’s 44-yard run in third quarter – the longest of the game by either team – set up his 7-yard touchdown run with 7:47 to go in the third. Karajic’s PAT extended Jax State’s lead to 17-7.

UTEP outgained the Gamecocks 364-275 but Miners standout receiver Tyrin Smith was limited to five catches for 38 yards. Jackson led JSU’s balanced rushing attack with 76 yards while Wiggins and quarterback Zion Webb contributed 63 each on the ground.

Newcomer Quae Drake led the Gamecock defense with 11 tackles. Harris was next with eight stops in addition to his clutch interception. Kolbi Fuqua also intercepted a Miners pass and Jeff Marks recovered a fumble forced by Larry Worth in the first half.

“I’ve got to give the fans credit because they hung in there,” Rodriguez said. “That was a hot day. I really appreciate the crowd helping out with the energy there at the end.”

The Gamecocks host Southern Conference member East Tennessee State next Saturday at 1 p.m. for “Band Day.” JSU is 1-0 all-time against the Buccaneers, having beaten ETSU 34-27 in Jacksonville during the 2018 FCS playoffs.

Jacksonville State Postgame Notes – UTEP August 26, 2023 • Burgess-Snow Field at JSU Stadium • Jacksonville, Ala.

· JSU Captains: Redshirt senior safety Jeremiah Harris, Redshirt senior offensive lineman Treylen Brown and redshirt senior quarterback Zion Webb
· UTEP won the toss and elected to defer
· The Gamecocks are now 52-54-8 all-time in season openers
· Following last season’s 42-17 season-opening victory over Stephen F. Austin, the Gamecocks have won back-to-back openers for the first time since winning three straight from 2015-2017
· The victory marks Jax State’s first season-opening win at home since 2016
· The Gamecocks are now 1-0 following their first meeting with the Miners, while Rodriguez moves to 2-0 in his career vs. UTEP (Arizona, 2017)
· Redshirt senior Malik Jackson rushed for a team-best 76 yards, including a 44-yarder, to set up his first touchdown as a Gamecock since transferring from UL-Monroe
· Linebacker Larry Worth assisted on a fourth-down sack and forced his first career fumble in the first half prior to being ejected for targeting late in the second quarter
· Jax State finished with a 3-0 advantage in the turnover battle with a pair of interceptions and a fumble recovery in addition to also forcing a fourth-down stop at midfield
· Harris’ last-minute, game-winning interception was the third of his career.
· Jax State and UTEP met in the first NCAA FBS game of the 2023 season played on American soil. Notre Dame beat Navy 42-3 in the day’s first game that was played in Dublin, Ireland; five other games involving FBS programs kicked off after the Gamecocks vs. Miners started.
· Jax State improves to 17-17 all-time against teams from the state of Texas; the Gamecocks visit Huntsville, TX, on Sept. 28 for a CUSA showdown against Sam Houston State.