(STATS) - Jacksonville State coach John Grass talked this past week about the difficulty of playing a season-opening game against a rival, Chattanooga, whose new coaching staff might utilize an unfamiliar game plan.
But he added, almost reminding himself, "At the end of the day, it doesn't revolve around what your opponent does, it is about our team and how we play and perform."
The sixth-ranked Gamecocks beat No. 12 Chattanooga 27-13 in the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff on Saturday night in the fashion that may be necessary for continuing a winning streak that has stretched to 32 against non-FBS opponents in the regular season.
The Gamecocks relied on their stingy defense and the breakaway plays of running back Roc Thomas to post their fifth straight win against Chattanooga since 2012. They spoiled the Mocs' coaching debut of Tom Arth, the one-time backup quarterback to Peyton Manning with the Indianapolis Colts.
Playing at a somewhat neutral Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama, Jacksonville State took the lead for good in the first quarter on the first play from scrimmage after Chattanooga tied the game 3-3 on Victor Ulmo's first of two field goals. Thomas took a delayed handoff from Bryant Horn and found a seam in the middle of the Mocs' defense, going 76 yards for a touchdown with 4:04 left.
The former Auburn Tiger went on to total 190 yards from scrimmage - 122 rushing and 68 receiving.
Jacksonville State is seeking an All-Ohio Valley Conference season, if not All-American, from Thomas because the offense is breaking in a new quarterback in Horn following the loss of 3 1/2-year starter Eli Jenkins, the school's all-time leader in total offense. The loss of all-time leading receiver Josh Barge also has set back the offense.
Fortunately for the Gamecocks, their nationally ranked defense will have offensive coordinators dialing the Gruden hotline. It features Darius Jackson, the OVC's 2016 defensive player of the year while they won their third straight conference title. He was active in reaching Chattanooga quarterback Nick Tiano for four hurries.
Jacksonville State extended a 10-6 halftime lead on Cade Stinnett's second field goal in the third quarter. On Chattanooga's ensuing drive, safety Jonathan Hagler intercepted Tiano near midfield and went untouched for a 52-yard touchdown and a 20-6 Gamecocks' lead with 3:45 left.
Horn's 59-yard touchdown pass to Shaq Davidson with 9:44 left in the fourth quarter put the game out of reach at 27-6. Horn completed 14 of 20 passes for 182 yards and two interceptions.
Chattanooga didn't find the end zone until mop-up time, limiting the Mocs to 294 yards - with over half in the fourth quarter. Quan Stoudemire collected a team-high nine tackles, while cornerback Reggie Hall had an interception and defensive end Dalton Campbell a fumble recovery.
Tiano, a Chattanooga native who transferred to the Mocs after playing at Mississippi State last season, was 23 of 42 for 218 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions in his first career start. He replaced Alejandro Bennifield, a second-team All-Southern Conference selection last season who was suspended by the NCAA for the first four games for an unnamed academic issue.
Grass, 34-6 as he begins his fourth season, improved to 11-3 against FCS ranked opponents - including 3-0 versus Chattanooga.