Everything that followed Cade Stinnett’s kickoff inside Jordan-Hare Stadium at 11:01 a.m. on Sept. 12, 2015 is what makes football games memorable.
It’s when the legend of Eli Jenkins began. It’s where Josh Barge flashed greatest. It was an opportunity for Chris Landrum to show his former team the kind of player he was. It was the day Jacksonville State, the then-No. 5 team in FCS, stood toe-to-toe with one of the most prestigious FBS programs and didn’t back down.
And why didn’t they? Because it was a moment the Gamecocks wanted.
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They wanted it from the moment against an in-state FBS foe since the 2015 football schedule was announced months prior. And that feeling carried over when “We Want Auburn” chants broke out among the Gamecock players and fans inside Finley Stadium after JSU knocked off Chattanooga, 23-20, to start the season. Jacksonville State wanted to be on the right side of college football history as the winners of the biggest upset in the sport’s history.
(Even though Michigan was ranked higher (No. 5) in 2007, Appalachian State was coming off back-to-back FCS National Championships and were favorited to win a third with all-time great Armanti Edwards at quarterback.)
But that moment … those feelings were shattered at 2:34 p.m. when Jenkins’ 43rd pass attempt of the game found the hands of Barge, but his foot came down on the out of bounds line. That gave Auburn, which came into the game as a five- to six-touchdown favorite, a 27-20 overtime win.
“If we would’ve won, it would have been a game JSU would never have forgotten, it would have been the biggest upset in history,” Barge said Wednesday afternoon. “The players and I, on the other hand, didn’t look at this game as an upset, because we knew we were capable of competing with Auburn. So, it wasn’t a big shock to us that we were in the game; we were more shocked that we didn’t come up with the win.”
Barge, three years after the game, still echoes the same message as JSU head coach John Grass.
“We were very disappointed (that we didn’t win), but we know everyone else was excited,” Grass said. “We were ranked No. 1 that game and held onto that as the year went on. But I think it would’ve been a whole lot better for us if we would’ve won.”
That chances to win were there.
Even though Auburn took a 13-10 lead into the fourth quarter, Jacksonville State wasted little time responding as Connor Rouleau connected on a 26-yard field goal attempt less than five minutes into the quarter. From there, Dawson Wells recorded the Gamecocks’ second interception on defense when he picked off Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson 40 seconds later.
Troymaine Pope capped an 11-play, 56-yard drive the next time Jacksonville State had the football with a 5-yard touchdown run to put the Gamecocks back ahead, 20-13, with 5:37 left in the game. After the Tigers moved the ball on the ground with Peyton Barber, Roc Thomas came for a carry, but fumbled the ball as Brandon Bender delivered a strong hit and Randy Robinson fell on it. However, on a fourth-and-three play from their 14-yard line, the Gamecocks decided to punt
It traveled only 17 yards.
“I don’t think any certain call wins or loses a game,” Grass said. “But there’s always some things, as a player or coach, that you wish you could’ve had back. There were a few calls that, looking back, we could’ve got Eli outside of the pocket on the third-and-four play rather than playing it safe and punting.”
As Grass said after practice Wednesday afternoon, “that team found ways to get better and that’s what great teams do.” But now, there’s nothing that can do done about the questionable decide to not throw a flag when LaMichael Fanning was held on Thomas’ touchdown reception. Or any of the play calls on both sides of the ball. The only thing that still lingers, all these years later, is the “what if” question among the JSU fans.
What if the Gamecocks knock off Auburn? What would’ve happened to Jacksonville State, if anything? Would the Gamecocks still have made the FCS National Championship game?
Like that fourth quarter, we’ll never know what would’ve been.