The first thing you notice about the University of Maine’s opponent in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs is that Jacksonville State has a heck of an offense.

The Gamecocks average 41.1 points and 499 yards per game. They’re led by sophomore quarterback Zerrick Cooper, a transfer from Clemson who has thrown for 3,051 yards and 30 touchdowns.

But look more closely, and you’ll see that Jacksonville State also has a heck of a defense. The Gamecocks give up only 22.3 points per game and are ranked in the Top 20 in four defensive categories, including a nation’s-best third-down defense.

So it’s no surprise when Maine Coach Joe Harasymiak says, “They have our full attention.”

Maine (8-3) will play Jacksonville State (9-3) at noon Saturday at Alfond Stadium in Orono. It will be Maine’s second home playoff game in its history. The Black Bears know they’ll be tested.

“There are only talented teams left,” said Harasymiak, of the remaining 16 playoff teams. “They’re no different. They were champions in their league. They have playoff experience, we don’t. Their offense is very explosive … their defense is similar in style to ours – they’re aggressive and they challenge you.”

Jacksonville State, one of three teams to qualify for the last six FCS playoffs (the others being North Dakota State and South Dakota State), won the Ohio Valley Conference championship. Unlike Maine’s Colonial Athletic Association title, this wasn’t a surprise. While Maine was picked to finish eighth in the CAA’s preseason poll, the Gamecocks were picked to finish first. And behind its potent offense, Jacksonville State surged to its 16th consecutive winning season.

Cooper set school records for touchdown passes and passing yards. Wide receiver Josh Pearson has a school-record 17 touchdown catches – also the most in Division I college football this season – and 1,061 receiving yards.

The Gamecocks need just 12 yards against Maine to go over 6,000 yards in total offense for the season.

“They’re talented in a lot of spots,” said Harasymiak. “We’re going to have to make a lot of one-on-one plays when the ball is in the air.”

Linebacker Jalen Choice leads Jacksonville State with 81 tackles and 10.5 tackles for a loss. The Gamecocks’ defense is ranked in the Top 20 in four defensive categories.

And in last week’s 34-27 comeback win over East Tennessee State in the FCS first round, Jacksonville State also got its running game going, something that might be very important with the Gamecocks coming up to chilly Maine. Sophomore Jaelen Greene became the first running back to rush for over 100 yards in a game this season, with 121 rushing yards. Jacksonville State averaged 7.2 yards per rush.

Jacksonville State Coach John Grass knows how important it will be to get Greene, along with redshirt freshman Michael Matthews, involved against Maine, which has the nation’s second-best rush defense, allowing 73.4 yards per game. Greene led the Gamecocks with 707 rushing yards and Matthews (40 yards on three rushes last week) had 397.

“Both those guys are playing at the level we thought they could play at all year,” said Grass. “They’re such a young group. We knew they were going to grow as the year went on. We have played four or five guys there all year, which is why we had no guy over 100. But those two have really started playing at a different level.”

Maine’s defense has faced great offenses before, Yale and Towson State, in particular. The Black Bears lost at Yale (12th best total offense in the nation) but won at Towson (18th).

“I’m confident the competition we’ve seen all year has us ready for playoff football,” said Harasymiak.

Defensively, Jacksonville State probably doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves. It plays an aggressive style that can lead to big plays by the opponent. But the Gamecocks often make game-changing plays. They have scored four defensive touchdowns, fifth in the FCS. And if you get into long-yardage situations on third down, good luck. Jacksonville State has allowed only 42 first downs on 170 chances, an astounding .247 percentage.

Grass said his offense and defense go “hand in hand. We try to be a solid defense. We want to be a top 10, top 5 in the country every year. That’s the key to winning a championship. You’ve got to start on that side of the ball first.

“This is going to be two really good defenses going at each other. Maine’s defense is as good as any we’ve played. It’s going to be a classic game.”

Linebacker Jalen Choice leads JSU with 81 tackles and 10.5 tackles for a loss. Safety Marlon Bridges follows with 61 tackles (along with two interceptions), linebacker Quan Stoudemire has 60 and safety Traco Williams has 58 (along with 8.5 tackles for a loss and a team-high four interceptions).

“They’re a talented, talented defense,” said Maine quarterback Chris Ferguson. “They’ve got a lot of playmakers, guys who run to the ball, make tackles, make plays in the pass game. We’ve just got to continue to be us, continue to do what we’re doing.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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