Back Matchup Breakdown: ETSU at Jacksonville State

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Matchup Breakdown: ETSU at Jacksonville State

By Jim Johnson
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Here are the most, and least, advantageous matchups within the matchup between the Buccaneers and Gamecocks.

After months of competition, the FCS regular season has come to an end, and the playoff pairings are decided. Two SoCon teams earned postseason bids, ETSU, who will travel to Jacksonville State, and Wofford, who will host Elon.

Two of the three Southern Conference co-champions, ETSU and Wofford each finished 8-3 overall, and 6-2 in league play. ETSU will move on to play at #7 seed Maine with a win, while Wofford would face #4 seed Kennesaw State in the second round.

Of all the teams in the tournament, ETSU has the longest stretch between 2018 and their most recent appearance, in 1996.

Here are the most, and least, advantageous matchups within the matchup between the Buccaneers and Gamecocks:

When ETSU has the ball:

Biggest Advantage -- Drive finishing

On paper, JSU’s weaknesses are few and far between, although it is worth acknowledging the fairly outsized disparity in the level of competition in the OVC, relative to the SoCon’s parity. However, one of the few flaws of what has otherwise been a stellar Gamecock defense in 2018 is their performance with their backs against the walls. Conversely, as the field shrinks, ETSU only gets better. Whereas Jacksonville State ranks 77th in allowed red zone scoring percentage, the Buc are in the national top three. Granted, earning those scoring opportunities is another matter entirely, but the team that wins the drive finishing battle wins the game 75% of the time. That’s not nothing.

Biggest Disadvantage -- Passing efficiency

Austin Herink is a gamer, to be sure, but, quite frankly, has lacked consistency throughout the season. The same could be said for Logan Marchi. Only once this year has ETSU had two consecutive 200+ yard passing games. Ditto for two games in a row without an interception, and seven of their eleven games finished with a sub-60% completion rate. Altogether, they sit at 82nd in yards per attempt and 100th in passer rating. That doesn’t bode well against a pair of all-conference safeties and a pass defense that ranks 7th in the country in each of the aforementioned categories.

When ETSU is on defense:

Biggest Advantage -- Turnovers

Again, there’s not much to nitpick with JSU’s offense, even as good as ETSU is on the other side of the ball, especially in the front seven that is just littered with playmakers. The Gamecocks’ quarterback is a bonafide superstar, they have one of the more dynamic pass catching duos in the playoffs, in Josh Pearson and tight end Trae Berry, and the offensive line is a machine. That being said, they are prone to cough up more than a few unplanned changes of possession. Their 22 giveaways rank 93rd in the FCS, while ETSU’s opportunistic group finalized the regular season in the top 25. Not dissimilar from the above drive finishing battle, the team that wins the turnover battle wins the game 73% of the time. So, although ETSU may not have as many theoretical advantages as JSU, the ones they do have are of arguably greater importance.

Biggest Disadvantage -- Third down conversions

Here too, despite ETSU’s otherwise complete unit, there is one gaping deficiency. That would be their performance, or lack thereof, in those crucial third down scenarios. They rank 90th in the nation, allowing a conversion on 40.8% of opposing attempts. On the flipside, JSU is moving the chains on 47.5% of their third down tries -- good for 8th overall. That is, in football terms, uh, not good.

Special Teams:

Biggest Advantage -- Place kicking

JJ Jerman is a superhero. Ranked 13th among qualifying kickers in field goal percentage, and yet to miss a PAT, he is genuinely one of the best in the game. Plus, and this factors into the drive finishing battle, he puts ETSU into a situation where scoring opportunities don’t start in the red zone. 8/9 from 30-39 yards and 4/5 from 40-49 yards, Jerman is a legitimate weapon. For JSU, Cade Stinnett is far more limited. He’s 4/5 from 20-29 yards, but 2/7 any deeper than that, putting him right at 50% for the season. ETSU can’t afford to bring field goals to a touchdown fight, but if this turns into the defensive showcase that it absolutely has the potential to, Jerman could prove to be the difference.

Biggest Disadvantage -- Punting/punt coverage

Punter Marion Watson has been only okay, at best, this season, averaging just under 40 yards per attempt. Coupled with a coverage unit that ranks 66th in yards per return allowed, ETSU is 60th in net yards per punt. Beyond that, as mediocre as JSU’s punt return numbers may be on the whole, Daniel Byrd is notching an average of almost 10 yards on his, which would rank in the top 30 among qualifying players. The field position battle is perhaps not one that ETSU wants to fight, best it can be avoided. It doesn’t mean they have to get Southern Utah levels of crazy, but a more aggressive fourth down philosophy might not be a bad idea.

All in all, JSU is justifiably the favorite in this competition, although it shouldn’t be to the extent of some of the lines that have been thrown around. Nevertheless, the matchup advantages that ETSU should hold -- turnovers and drive finishing, two of the preeminent examples -- do generally carry some extra weight. Given the Gamecocks’ history in the FCS Playoffs, alongside an ETSU squad that has thrived in the role of underdog, and is especially adept at navigating tight contests late in ball games, it would be a mistake to dismiss Randy Sanders’ group.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP