Jacksonville State quarterback Eli Jenkins takes off running last season. The Gamecocks potent offense has Michigan State's attention. (Stephen Gross / Associated Press)
East Lansing — On Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan State’s biggest rival will be attempting to find some sort of retribution. That’s when Michigan faces Appalachian State for the first time since losing to the FCS power in 2007.
Mark Dantonio is focused on not having his own “Appalachian State moment” Friday when Michigan State welcomes Jacksonville State, another FCS team that is regular participant in the playoffs, including last season when it reached the semifinals.
But if focus and attention to detail are any indicator, the Spartans are convinced they are approaching the game as they should.
“It always starts with Coach D, and he always harps on us to never underestimate anyone and to always play with a chip on our shoulder, no matter who we are playing,” quarterback Connor Cook said. “I think we’ve done that in the past and that’s what we did last year and I think we can continue that.”
It will be the fifth matchup with an FCS team for Michigan State, but this is likely one of the most talented it has faced. Jacksonville State was 11-4 last season and is the favorite to win the Ohio Valley Conference.
It also returns 18 starters, is ranked No. 8 in the FCS coaches’ poll, and the roster is supplemented with players who have transferred from the likes of Georgia, Tennessee, Auburn and defending national champion Florida State.
That talent at the lower level is something Dantonio is used to seeing after coaching at Akron before it moved to Division I and spending five years with Jim Tressel at Youngstown State.
“As I said to our players, they’re one play away from being in similar situations and moving their trade to another school,” Dantonio said. “Having been at Youngstown State back in the ’90s, I can tell you that when you bring a college football player in who’s played at this level and transferred to the next level down, they can have a direct impact on your football team.”
The Gamecocks not only bring confidence to Spartan Stadium, they bring a prolific offense that set 49 school records, including total offense (6,637 yards/442.5 avg.), scoring (528/35.2 avg.), passing (3,033/202.2 avg.) and touchdowns (65).
Led by first-year coach and former offensive coordinator John Grass, Jacksonville State scored 24 times on drives of less than one minute.
It certainly has Michigan State’s attention.
“We definitely realize they have high-potential guys and are going to come out and give us their best game,” defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “It’s always a challenge, but I feel like we’ve been prepared for this ever since we realized they were on our schedule. We are all focused on this game and are not trying to get too far ahead.”
Grass, who was coaching in high school two years ago, is excited his first game as a coach at the college level is against Michigan State. He believes it gives him a good idea of where his program stands.
“We get to see where we are as a team against a team that people are predicting to be in the national championship,” Grass said. “We are going to battle and play every snap and not fold. ...
“Our goal is to win the national championship on our level and we get to go against a team that will have a say in the national championship picture.”
Jacksonville State at Michigan State
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Season opener
Series: First meeting