FRISCO, TEXAS – Moments before Jacksonville State’s first snap of the FCS national championship, a referee with an open mic walked up to redshirt junior QB Eli Jenkins with a message.
“Have a good game, Eli.”
Four quarters later, the clock ticked down in the final minutes as long lines of fans in yellow attire crowded the now half-empty JSU fan section, waiting to celebrate a good game.
A good game for North Dakota State, which ended with a 37-10 win and its fifth straight national title, an NCAA record.
The fans in red who had hoped to see their Gamecocks (13-2) claim their first 14-win season and their first national championship since 1992 had left.
What they saw before though was the program’s worst game of the year and arguably Jenkins’ worst of his career as a full-time starter. It was the Gamecocks’ first loss since losing to then sixth-ranked Auburn in overtime in Week 2.
Jenkins, a Birmingham, Ala., native, finished the cold afternoon with a career low 57 passing yards on 7 of 20 attempts. JSU’s 207 yards of offense were marred by four turnovers from Jenkins, two by air and two by ground.
“We knew North Dakota State was a great football team, great defense,” Jenkins said. “We watched film, we watched all their film. They play hard, play fast, they get to the ball.”
But the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year, who averaged 195.1 passing yards per game on an offense that averaged 529.2 yards, could never get into a rhythm outside the first drive of the second half. Jenkins ran 46 yards into the Bison red zone, then scored from six yards out two plays later.
The team only converted on three of 12 third-down attempts.
Meanwhile, NDSU’s (13-2) Carson Wentz, playing in his first game back after breaking his right wrist halfway through the season, had 197 yards passing and three touchdowns, two on the ground.
“We’re kind of out of sync, out of rhythm offensively in the first half for whatever reason,” said head coach John Grass, coach of the first OVC school to reach a title game since 1982. “It’s been a long time since we threw it for 57 yards passing, so we’re usually better through the air.”
Grass didn’t yet know where it went wrong for his team which averaged 625.0 yards and 53.7 paints in its three playoff wins. It could have been the three-week layoff after its semifinal win or the home atmosphere for the Bison.
“I kind of question myself, because I blame myself,” said Grass. “I’ve got to do a better job of getting them ready to play. That’s where I’ll look in the mirror tonight and try to figure out what I did wrong.”
The second-year coach said it was difficult walking into the JSU locker room to address the team after a game it believed it would win.
“You’re talking about a program three years ago that had not won an FCS playoff game,” Grass said. “To be sitting in a national championship game is where our dreams and goals were.”
But it was Jenkins, speaking for the entire roster, who took the blame.
“It was all about us, Jenkins said. “If we played the way we played all season, the outcome of the game would have been different, and we didn’t do that … I feel like I didn’t play like I usually play. I feel like I didn’t play up to my standards, and that was the reason why we lost this game.
Jenkins then paused to consider his next words and the disappointing game and admirable season that inspired them.
“It should have been different.”