Junior B-back Jonathan Dwyer set the tone for Saturday’s football season opener when he broke a 74-yard touchdown run on Tech’s first offensive play of the season. It was one of five touchdowns for the Jackets on the day as they cruised to a 37-17 victory over Jacksonville State University at Bobby Dodd Stadium to earn their first win of the 2009 campaign.
That first play, an option pitch to Dwyer, was executed to perfection. All of the linemen, backs, and receivers took their respective blocking assignments out of the play, and when Dwyer caught the pitch from junior quarterback Josh Nesbitt, he had a wide-open field ahead and ran to the end zone untouched.
“That play is designed to get the ball to the edge, and they made good blocks, the A-backs made good blocks and Josh [Nesbitt] made a big read,” Dwyer said.
On the ensuing kickoff, redshirt junior linebacker Anthony Barnes forced a fumble that freshman safety Jemea Thomas recovered, and Tech was in position to take a big lead early in the game. The Gamecock defense stopped the Jackets near the goal line, though, and Tech settled for a 20-yard field goal by junior kicker Scott Blair to take a 10-0 lead.
When JSU finally started their first offensive possession, they went nowhere. Quarterback Marques Ivory, a Georgia native starting for the Gamecocks in place of suspended senior Ryan Perrilloux, had his first pass knocked down at the line of scrimmage by junior defensive end Derrick Morgan.
“I saw the ball and saw it was a screen, and my first reaction was to get my hands up,” Morgan said.
Tech got the ball back but had an unsuccessful drive, going three-and-out after a dropped pass by sophomore A-back Embry Peeples on third down. On the Jackets’ next possession, though, Nesbitt engineered a second touchdown drive that concluded when Dwyer hurdled his way into the end zone from five yards out. Dwyer’s second score of the game gave Tech a 17-0 lead.
For the drive, Nesbitt had three runs for 29 yards and completed an 18-yard pass to junior wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, and he narrowly missed on a pass to redshirt junior A-back Anthony Allen.
On Tech’s first drive of the second quarter, Nesbitt ran the offense well until he fumbled the ball in JSU territory, negating what would have been a long run. The Gamecocks made the most of Tech’s mistake and marched down the field and scored their first touchdown.
The drive was capped off with a trick play: JSU receiver Brooks Robinson took the snap and threw a screen pass to Ivory, who fired to Robinson for a touchdown to put the Gamecocks on the board. The score cut the Jackets’ lead to 17-7.
Tech started their next drive on their own 27-yard line. Nesbitt took the first snap and fired a dart to Thomas, who caught it and gained 56 yards on the play; it was the longest completed pass of Nesbitt’s career.
“It was a good pass, I thought I was going to score. I didn’t know the corner was behind me, but it was a good pass. The coach had told us to keep running deep and stretch the safety out,” Thomas said.
Three plays later, Nesbitt ran the ball himself and scored a ten-yard touchdown on the keeper to put Tech ahead 24-7.
After another brief JSU possession, redshirt freshman quarterback Tevin Washington took over in relief of Nesbitt. On the fifth play of the drive, with the Jackets deep in JSU territory, Washington fumbled during a keeper run and the Gamecocks recovered. It was Tech’s third fumble of the game to that point.
“Maybe we should have knocked the crap out of them in fall camp; they wouldn’t have dropped it so much. We have to get it fixed,” Johnson said.
Tech’s defense held the JSU offense in check, with Morgan sacking Ivory on third down to force JSU to punt. Sophomore corner back Jerrard Tarrant caught the punt at his own 32-yard line and dodged around several Gamecock defenders as his blockers led him to the end zone.
Tarrant’s touchdown was the first punt return TD for Tech since Jonathan Smith did it in 2003, and it was the final score of the half. The Jackets took a 31-7 lead into the locker room.
Tech rested several of their first-string players throughout the second half thanks to the big lead and the short week before Thursday’s game against Clemson. Dwyer did not take the field after halftime; he finished the game with seven carries for 95 yards and two touchdowns.
As a result, several of the Jackets’ reserves were able to get significant playing time in the second half. Freshman linebacker Julian Burnett was one backup who took advantage of the time on the field, as he made five tackles in the third quarter and finished the game with a team-high nine tackles.
“Just knowing that someone [has] my back in case I go down… that takes a lot of pressure off me,” said junior linebacker Brad Jefferson in reference to Burnett.
On the other side of the ball, though, Tech just could not maintain their momentum from the first half. Even with Nesbitt still in the lineup, the Jackets had two drives in the third quarter and ran just eleven offensive plays, including a dropped pass and another Nesbitt fumble. Neither team scored in the quarter, and Tech remained ahead 31-7.
Jacksonville State started off the fourth quarter by kicking a 26-yard field goal. Tech responded with a seven-play, 62-yard drive that was capped off with a 26-yard touchdown pass from Nesbitt to A-back Anthony Allen.
It was Nesbitt’s last play of the game; the junior completed six of 11 pass attempts in the game for 141 yards and a touchdown and ran for 94 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, but he also had three of Tech’s five fumbles.
Scott Blair missed the extra point attempt and sent a 42-yard field goal attempt wide left later in the quarter. Following the missed field goal, the Gamecocks put together an impressive 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive against Tech’s reserve defenders.
The drive concluded with less than a minute left in the game, and the Jackets ran off the final seconds. The final score was 37-17 in favor of Tech.
Familiar names were atop the stat sheet for the Jackets. Dwyer and Nesbitt were the team leaders in rushing yards and attempts, and Thomas led the team with four receptions and 101 yards.
Tech racked up 497 total yards as a team, including 335 on the ground, but the Jackets likely would have put up better numbers if not for the three lost fumbles.
On the defensive side, Morgan had two sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. Senior linebacker Sedric Griffin contributed on seven tackles, and junior rover Morgan Burnett had the team’s lone interception early in the second quarter after leading the team in 2008 with seven picks.
The unit as a whole was strong at times, forcing the Gamecocks to punt seven times, but struggled in run support often. JSU’s top two rushers, Calvin Middleton and Jamal Young, each averaged more than five yards per carry.
The reorganized special teams unit had mixed results. Redshirt sophomore Chandler Anderson took over punting duties for Blair and landed one of his two punts inside the Gamecocks’ five-yard line. Blair was solid on kickoffs, but he once again struggled with his accuracy as a placekicker, missing an extra point and a field goal attempt.
The seemingly easy win ended up shrouding the team’s mistakes in the game. “In hindsight, scoring on the first play of the game might not have been as good as you would think,” Johnson said.