Jacksonville State (0-0) at (8) Michigan State (0-0)|
Friday, August 29, 7:30 p.m. (ET)
The Sports Network
GAME NOTES: In one of just two FCS-FBS matchups on Friday, the Jacksonville
State Gamecocks will travel to East Lansing to take on the eighth-ranked
Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium in the season opener for both
Jacksonville State and Michigan State have never met on the field prior to
this matchup. The Spartans had a near-perfect record in 2013, finishing the
season at 13-1 with one hiccup against Notre Dame. The team eventually
finished the year ranked No. 3 in the FBS and toppled fifth-ranked Stanford
in the Rose Bowl, 24-20, to end the campaign.
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio enters his eighth season at the helm
for the Spartans, and has led his team to a bowl game in each of the last five
years (with wins in the past three). His squad returns a healthy number of
starters from a season ago, which includes some of the biggest names in all of
Jacksonville State had quite the season at the FCS level in 2013, finishing
the year ranked No. 10 in the country following a trip to the FCS quarterfinal
round of the playoffs. The Gamecocks were 11-4 on the season, including 5-3 in
the Ohio Valley Conference, which was good for a third-place tie.
There was no shortage of offense for the Gamecocks last season, who came on
strong in the latter half of the schedule. Jacksonville State managed 35.2 ppg
and an astounding 240.3 rushing ypg in an offense centered around All-American
running back DaMarcus James. James is a bruiser who rumbled for 1,477 yards
and 29 touchdowns on 292 carries last season, and is on the preseason watch
list for the Walter Payton Award, given to the most outstanding player in the
He's complemented by standout quarterback Eli Jenkins, who didn't start under
center last season until an injury allowed him playing time. He made the most
of it, throwing for 887 yards and three touchdowns while also rushing for 953
yards and eight scores. The man he replaced as the starter, Max Shortell, is
also still on the roster.
Jenkins has weapons returning that will keep defenses honest. Telvin Brown
(441 yards, two touchdowns), Anthony Johnson (four touchdowns) and Josh Barge
are all back from solid underclassmen campaigns. The offensive line is a
strength as well, led by center Max Holcombe.
Defensively, Jacksonville State lost a lot of production at the linebacker
spot, and safety Pierre Warren opted for the NFL early after a standout
season. But the defensive line is strong, led by tackle Caleb Lawrence (446
tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, six sacks) and is now also featuring Alabama
transfer defensive end LaMichael Fanning (6-foot-7).
Senior Ben Endress will be counted on to lead the linebacker corps after
losing three standout performers at the spot. Last season, the linebackers
helped Jacksonville State hold opponents to 23.6 ppg and 381.5 yards of total
offense per outing.
In the secondary, the loss of safeties Warren and Brandon Ender (101 tackles,
five pass breakups) hurts, but cornerbacks Rashod Byers (49 tackles, 10 pass
breakups) and Jermaine Hough (51 tackles, eight pass breakups) will do well
against most receivers.
For the Spartans, this will be an offense itching to get back out on the field
after a strong 2013 campaign that saw them average 29.4 ppg and 385.5 total
offensive ypg. It all starts with returning starter Connor Cook at
quarterback. Cook showed beautiful command of the offense a year ago by
throwing for 2,755 yards and 22 touchdowns against just six interceptions.
"I'm always looking for more," Dantonio said. "Really, I am. I'm always
looking for a little bit more. I think all of our coaches do that. We look for
the guys who aren't making mental mistakes, the guys who are giving a little
bit more effort. We can always get better."
The offense, which ranked 80th in the nation in total offense, should be
bolstered by Cook and running back Jeremy Langford, who is back for his senior
season. Langford averaged 102 rushing ypg last year and scored 19 total
touchdowns (18 rushing, one receiving) on a hefty 292 carries. His workload
should be about the same this year.
Unlike the running back position, where Langford is the clear number one,
Dantonio has stressed more depth at wide receiver entering this season. With
players like Tony Lippett (44 receptions, 613 yards, two touchdowns),
DeAnthony Arnett and Keith Mumphery on the field, Cook will have plenty of
options to which he can throw.
It was the defense that stood out for Dantonio and Michigan State last season.
The Spartans allowed just 13.2 ppg to opponents and held those offenses to a
mere 252.2 ypg of total offense - both ranked in the top three in the country.
The defense in 2014 is led by lineman Shilique Calhoun, who is a projected top
10 draft pick after recording 6.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries last year.
All-conference safety Kurtis Drummond leads the way for the defensive
backfield (91 tackles, six pass breakups and four interceptions in 2013), but
gets help from two-year starting cornerback Trae Waynes (50 tackles, five pass
"We've had a lot of players come through here and do all the right things and
Kurtis is just another one of those guys," Dantonio said. "He's been a leader
on the field; his teammates recognize that. He's been able to keep his
composure in all types of situations throughout his career and he's got the
opportunity to lead our team this year."
Big linebacker Taiwan Jones is coming off a season in which he recorded seven
tackles for loss. He'll be the main man among the linebackers after the
departure of Denicos Allen.
There's no question Michigan State will be one of the final teams vying for
college's first-ever playoff. And with a core group of playmakers returning on
both offense and defense, there's no doubt the Spartans will be in the hunt
for the Big Ten title (especially with the questions surrounding Ohio State
and Braxton Miller's successor).
Jacksonville State will put up a good fight for a small-school competitor, and
will be one of the top teams at the FCS level when all is said and done. But
going against Michigan State in the first contest of the season is too much of
a mountain for the Gamecocks to climb.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Michigan State 43, Jacksonville State 20
08/29 15:16:11 ET