Chattanooga head coach Russ Huesman and his defensive staff have tried to come up with ways to stop Jacksonville State’s vaunted rushing game for the past two years. Like most JSU opponents they haven’t had much luck.
The Mocs have squared off against JSU three times the last two seasons, including a second-round FCS playoff game this year. The Gamecocks rushed for 285, 298 and 244 yards on their way to winning all three games. Give Chattanooga credit though for “stopping” the Gamecocks: in 14 games this season JSU averaged 311 rushing yards.
Running backs Troymaine Pope (1,757 yards) and Miles Jones (707 yards) along with quarterback Eli Jenkins (1,251 yards) have accounted for nearly 80 percent of JSU’s ground game and are a major reason why JSU is playing in Saturday’s FCS national championship game at noon ET against North Dakota State in Frisco, Texas.
While the No. 1- ranked Gamecocks (13-1) are making their first appearance in the title game, the No. 3 Bison (12-2) are going for their fifth consecutive championship.
“The only thing that I think the experience does is our guys know what they’re getting into when we head down to Frisco,” Bison head coach Chris Klieman told NCAA.com. “They know the routine. They know the practice. They know where the stadium’s at. They know the walk from the stadium to the field. All those things are little things that maybe take some of the nerves away. But it’s going to play no factor once we kick that thing off against a great football team.”
The Gamecocks top the nation in several rushing categories. Only four schools across the FBS and FCS have more than JSU’s 4,364 rushing yards. Their 6.29 yard per carry is also fourth best. No one in the FCS has 52 rushing touchdowns. Only FBS triple-option schools Georgia Southern and Navy have more. That 311 rush yards per game is seventh best.
Yet when asked about JSU’s quick strike offense prior to facing JSU the first time this season, Huesman was quick to point out another Gamecock offensive weapon that gets lost in all the rushing accolades.
“Josh Barge might be the best wideout in the country,” Huesman said. “He’s a fantastic player.”
Barge is a 6-foot-1, 178 pound redshirt junior from Carrollton, Ga. In the three games against the Mocs, Barge’s numbers indicate that his performances were rather pedestrian. The Mocs secondary kept him out of the end zone while Barge averaged five catches for 57 yards.
But Huesman, a defensive back for Chattanooga in the early 1980s, saw firsthand how a receiver can change the outcome of a game without finding the end zone. Barge single-handedly broke the back of the Chattanooga secondary not once, but twice.
In the season opener, JSU trailed the Mocs 20-16 with 3:18 left in the game. Needing just three yards for a first down and 11 yards for the go-ahead score, JSU was on the Chattanooga 11-yard line. JSU elected to pass and Barge came up huge, hauling in an 8-yard reception from Jenkins. With a first-and-goal at the 3-yard line, two plays later Jones rushed in for the game-winning score.
With the score tied at 35 with 1:42 left in the second round playoff game, JSU faced a third and 10 at their own 30 yard line. A personal foul was called on the Gamecocks, pushing them back to their 15. On third and 25, Jenkins rushed for 17 yards setting up a fourth and 8 from the 32. Barge hauled in a 19-yard reception to keep the drive going. JSU eventually won the game in overtime, 41-35.
Having Barge as a go-to receiver keeps defenses honest.
“We try to load the box, enough to run the ball,” JSU head coach John Grass said. “That’s just kind of our philosophy. “I think when you’ve got guys on the outside like Barge … it makes it kind of hard to crowd too much. That’s where we’ve been very effective.”
A week after the first match-up against Chattanooga, Barge torched Auburn’s secondary in JSU’s near upset of the then No. 6-ranked Tigers. With 14 receptions, 132 yards receiving and a touchdown in front of a nationally televised audience, the kid from Carrollton was the named the FCS Player of the Week.
“He’s developed just a tremendous work ethic,” Grass said. “He works a lot and he’s a talented guy. He’s deceptively fast. He’s got great hands. His ball skills are just second to none. He’s just got a knack of getting open. He runs routes well and knows how to get open.”
Barge has 204 career receptions which is a school record and is tied for fifth in the Ohio Valley Conference history. His 121 receiving yards in the national semifinal game against Sam Houston State bumped his career total to 2,917, breaking the school’s career receiving yards record. Barge’s 1,113 receiving yards this season is the school’s single-season receiving record. He is the second JSU receiver ever to go over 1000 receiving yards in a season. Barge’s 90 receptions this year is tied for sixth in OVC history.
“After the loss last year to Sam Houston, we still had that bitter taste in our mouth all summer and all season long,” Barge said after the Gamecocks’ 62-10 victory against Sam Houston State in the FCS semifinals on Dec. 19.
“We felt like we beat ourselves. The crowd was amazing and we felt like they were behind us all season long. We just did what we like to do and came out and got the win. It’s a blessed feeling. We’re going to enjoy this tonight, but we have three weeks to prepare for a team that has won it numerous times. I think this year is our time and our team knows that.”
The last time Jacksonville State won a national title in football was 23 years ago while playing in Division II. If JSU win its first FCS title, Barge might not put up big numbers but he’ll definitely have an impact.
More coverage: How both teams made it to Frisco
Above: While the Gamecocks rely on their rushing game to overpower opponents, wide out Josh Barge could be the key to victory. (Courtesy Jacksonville State Athletics)