Mark Edwards: On a perfect day for Jax State, a seventh-year senior is the man of the hour
JACKSONVILLE — Jacksonville State says it wishes to be branded as Jax State moving forward, and maybe Saturday's football opponent, Texas-El Paso, should make a change, too. They should go with something besides UTEP. My friend Chris Roberts, a former journalism colleague and a Jax State alumnus, offered this suggestion: University of Texas at El Intercepted Passo.
The intercepted pass came courtesy of seventh-year senior Jeremiah Harris, who made the play of his long, long college football career to ice Jax State's 17-14 over UTEP on Saturday. It marked a perfect ending to a perfect game for a school that's entering its first season in the Football Bowl Subdivision. JSU led by three points, but UTEP had fourth-and-one at the Gamecocks’ 24 with 1:15 to play.
UTEP has five guys on its offensive line who made either first-, second- or third-team preseason All-Conference USA, but the Miners chose to pass. There was a mix up in the Jax State secondary, and Harris was left alone to cover two receivers. (He chose not to reveal who was supposed to come over and help.
) In a quandary, Harris gambled, figuring that one of those receivers he was responsible for guarding was Tyrin Smith, probably the best pass-catcher in the league. Smith grabbed 71 passes a year ago for more than 1,000 yards. Surely to goodness, the ball would go to Smith.
Harris guessed right and jumped in front of Smith a microsecond before the ball arrived, snatching it out of the air. Later, Harris called it a "great guess. " If he had missed, Smith would've had a touchdown.
If UTEP had thrown to the guy Harris left to defend Smith, they would've had a touchdown. Heck, I'm still surprised UTEP didn't try to line up behind those all-conference lineman, push JSU a yard off the line, and pick up the first down. Maybe that speaks for JSU's strength up front as the Gamecocks’ offensive and defensive lines held the advantage over UTEP on Saturday.
Instead of a routine run up the middle, we got what must be one of the biggest and most meaningful interceptions in the long, accomplished Jacksonville State football history. Again, it capped a day that couldn't have gone any better for Jax State. The Gamecocks got to play on national television on CBSsports Network, with few other games going on.
With little competition, it seems as if plenty of the folks watching at home eventually drifted to this fantastic game in Jacksonville, Alabama. I'd love to see what the TV audience was for the first half vs. the second half.
It's hard to imagine there wasn't a noticeable difference, especially with the way folks were talking on social media. Maybe a few more people have figured out Jax State is in Alabama, not Florida. All those extra folks saw a Jacksonville State team that's ready to play in the FBS.
They saw a gutty group that'll play through 97-degree heat on a sunny Saturday and have enough in the tank at the end of the game. They saw a team coached by a nationally known personality in Rich Rodriguez, and they saw construction in the background as Jax State is building new facilities to compete at a higher level. And the defensive back who sealed it is one of the best guys to connect the old Jacksonville State football team with the new one.
Harris came to Jax State in 2017 as a walk-on, although Rodriguez joked in the locker room afterward that it was 10 years ago when Harris arrived, not seven. Harris grew up in Shorterville, Alabama, and graduated from Abbeville High where he was the best athlete on the team and played quarterback. He sat out the first season as a redshirt and played regularly the next three seasons.
In 2021, he was set to play a huge role for the defense but got hurt in the season opener. He was allowed to play an extra year because of the waiver the NCAA granted to athletes whose careers were affected by COVID-19, so Harris returned for the 2022 season. He applied for another waiver to get back the season he missed in 2021.
That was granted, too, so he is getting to play in 2023. He was an important part of JSU's Ohio Valley Conference championship era. He was an important part of JSU's ASUN championship team last year.
And, now he's an important part of JSU's move to Conference USA and the FBS. Harris is a lively guy with a fun personality, and he's become a favorite in the interview room. He's never short of things to say.
When asked if that's the best moment of his career, he smiled. "I don't know yet," he said. "I've got a long season.
For now, it is. I've always dreamed of getting a game-winning interception. But I don't know yet.
" How much did Harris put into this game? We saw that when he got up from the plastic chair he occupied during Saturday's postgame interview. He and several of his teammates had come straight from the locker room to the interview room. They were still in their game uniforms.
They hadn't even taken off their jerseys. As Harris stood, he realized how much he was still sweating as there was a puddle of sweat in the seat of the chair. Of course, Harris being Harris, he was the first to make fun of himself for it.