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Joe Medley | The Anniston Star | January 8, 2016

Three keys in FCS title game: run the ball, stop the run, get to the QB

  Troymaine Pope hopes to be part of a 1-2 punch with Eli Jenkins to spark the JSU offense.

FRISCO, Texas -- Jacksonville State must make an NFL-caliber quarterback that hasn't played since October uncomfortable.

The Gamecocks must get through what's described as an NFL-quality offensive line to do that and stop the run.

And bottom line for top-ranked and top-seeded JSU (13-1) in Saturday's FCS title showdown with North Dakota State (12-2)? The Gamecocks must do what they do and run the ball against FCS' top run defense.

The talking is over. Kickoff is Saturday in Toyota Stadium for JSU's first title shot in Division I. The three keys are clear.

1. Get after Wentz

North Dakota State coach Chris Klieman finally answered the question that's hounded him for two months Friday, naming Wentz as his starting quarterback for Saturday's game.

Wentz, who broke his right (throwing) wrist and underwent surgery. His recovery was forecast at six to eight weeks, and it's been 11 weeks.

Wentz, who participated in Friday's pregame news conference after missing Thursday's media availabilities with what Klieman called a "head cold," said doctors cleared him to resume full activities two weeks ago. He said he "pushed the envelope" in practice Monday and felt fine.

It means JSU's title chase will go through a 6-foot-6, 235-pound quarterback who gets first-round grades from some NFL draft analysts. He's played in this game a year ago, delivering the game-winning drive and touchdown with 37 seconds to play.

Redshirt freshman Easton Stick has played well in eight games of relief for Wentz, but JSU's coaching staff has prepared as though Wentz would play Saturday. The challenges Wentz brings are many.

His playing "does not take away the quarterback run," JSU coach John Grass said. "Both of those quarterbacks run the ball really well, so you know they're still going to do that.

"The passing game is where it changes the game -- the play-action stuff, getting him outside the pocket, letting him make throws down the field. He can make the out throw at whatever distance you want him to make it opposite hash, so he can make those throws down the field and make them precise."

But Wentz hasn't played since October. He has practiced full speed but hasn't been hit or made uncomfortable. There must be rust.

Nothing makes the rust show like pressure, and JSU ranks 14th in FCS with 2.86 sacks a game. Wentz will be the most biggest game JSU's pass rush has hunted this season.

"With the name that he has and the recognition that he's gotten throughout the last couple of years, it's going to be a great opportunity for us to go against him," JSU cornerback Jermaine Hough said. "When the ball kicks off, we just have to come together as a defense and play like we've always been playing all year."

2. Stop the run

North Dakota State has FCS' 12th best rushing attack at 240.6 yards a game, and it's the key to the Bison's ball-control philosophy. They hold the ball an FCS-best 36 minutes a game.

JSU has FCS's 16th best rushing defense, giving up 116.6 yards a game.

Running the ball will mitigate any rust Wentz might have, so JSU has to force him to throw in long down-and-distance situations.

Too, the Gamecocks must get their own offense on the field. They rank second in total offense at 529.2 yards a game and sixth in scoring offense at 41 points a game.

3. Run the ball

It's real simple. JSU ranks third in FCS at 311.7 rushing yards per game. North Dakota State ranks seventh in rushing defense, giving up 101.4 yards a game.

JSU's zone-read offense is based around the one-two punch of a quarterback in Eli Jenkins and running back in Troymaine Pope who can break explosive touchdown runs.

"Jacksonville State is more explosive than Illinois State was last year, so we've got our hands full," North Dakota State cornerback C.J. Smtih said, referring to the Bison's FCS final opponent from a year ago.

The Gamecocks' running game opens its passing game and wears down opponents.

"You said they stop the run?" Jenkins said in response to a media question. "We run the ball pretty well, so we're going to see what goes down."

This article was written by Joe Medley from The Anniston Star and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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