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December 31, 2015

(STATS) - Cornerback Jermaine Hough likes the competitive style of Jacksonville State teammate Eli Jenkins - even when he's victimized by the FCS All-America quarterback.

"Every day, we're out there talking trash to each other," Hough said of his team's practices. "He gives me that look sometimes before a play and I know he's coming my way and he still throws it. Great player over there."

What coach John Grass and the Gamecocks have to like even more is the production of Jenkins, who has enjoyed a record-setting season while leading the nation's top-ranked squad into the FCS championship game Jan. 9 in Frisco, Texas.

Awaiting Jenkins and Jackonsville State (13-1) is their ultimate challenge: four-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State (12-2), which has built a dynasty around defense. In each of their three postseason wins this month, the Bison have limited their opponent to a season low in offensive yards.

"We're the No. 1 team in the nation - that means something, we're a pretty good football team," Jenkins said. "North Dakota State, they've won it four times back-to-back and they're in it again, so clearly, they're a really good team. So I feel like these are the two teams that are supposed to be here."

Jacksonville State's arrival has a lot to do with Jenkins' increased command of the offense. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound redshirt junior will always be better as a runner than a passer, but his many improvements over 2 1/2 seasons as a starter has helped give the Gamecocks perhaps the most dangerous attack in the FCS. They rank second in offensive yards per game (529.2), third in rushing yards (311.7) and sixth in points (41.0).

Their fast, athletic signal caller is the program's career leader in total offense with 8,212 yards, including the most rushing yards by a quarterback (2,724).

Jenkins teamed with running back Troymaine Pope to give the Gamecocks their first pair of 1,000-yard rushers in a single season, and, just as important, he set career highs in completion percentage (62.1) and passing efficiency (143.1) while throwing for 2,731 yards and 21 touchdowns against only six interceptions - three fewer than a year ago despite 132 more attempts.

Those numbers - not to mention his 14 rushing touchdowns - stand out even more when you consider Jenkins has sat out nine full quarters in lopsided wins this season.

He doesn't do it alone, getting protection from an offensive line which boasts four of the five selections on the All-Ohio Valley Conference first team, while clutch wide receiver Josh Barge is the school's all-time receptions leader.

But the conference's offensive player of the year has earned his way into being a dual-threat, quicker with his reads and release, and a quarterback so different from the one who had more rushing yards (953) than passing yards (887) as a freshman in 2013.

"I'm more comfortable than I was last year and definitely two years ago," he said. "Two years ago, I was more a run-first, pass-second type of quarterback.

"After that year, I told myself I was going to work in the offseason with anybody that wanted to throw with me, whoever wanted to come out that day, I didn't care who it was, even if it was my girlfriend, I was going to get out there and throw some balls and try to get better and help my team be more successful. It's worked out pretty good."

Grass, in his second season at the helm, has witnessed the evolution first-hand after spending Jenkins' freshman year as assistant head coach and offensive coordinator.

"He recognizes coverages," the coach said. "When we throw the ball, he gets the ball where it's supposed to be, he gets the ball out on time, makes very few poor decisions - he's a good decision maker. He extends plays with his legs and makes things happen, he can run the football. He's having a great year and he is playing at a high level right now."

Behind Jenkins, Jacksonville State is coming off the two highest-scoring games in the program's 34-game postseason history - 58 points against Charleston Southern in a national quarterfinal and then 62 against Sam Houston State in the semis.

In the title game, the Gamecocks will face a North Dakota State defense that doesn't make many mistakes and swarms to the ball with a fast, physical style.

The Bison, who have won 19 straight postseason games, had to rally late to beat fellow Missouri Valley member Illinois State in the national championship game last season. When they played finalists from other conferences - Sam Houston in 2011 and '12 and Towson in 2013 - their defense shut down some outstanding offenses.

The confident Gamecocks, though, are determined to prove they are different and that their Jenkins-led offense is the best one of all.

"When you turn on (North Dakota State) film and watch them play, you see everybody try to get to the ball," Jenkins said. "When they do make a tackle, it's a physical tackle. They're not lazy ever, they play as hard as they can every play. That's what's making them a great football team, a great defense.

"It's hard for teams to try to play us because if you try to take away Troymaine or Miles (Jones), I keep the ball. If you try to take away me, they're getting the ball. So it's really hard to prepare for the type of offense we run. We've been doing it for about three years, so we've gotten pretty good at it."

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