JACKSONVILLE - Twenty-three years after winning a national title in its last season in NCAA Division II, Jacksonville State will play for another championship, this time at the FCS level.
The No. 1 Gamecocks scored on seven of their first eight possessions and overwhelmed No. 6 Sam Houston State 62-10 to earn a trip to the FCS Championship Game on Jan. 9.
Jacksonville State (13-1) avenged last year's home playoff loss to the Bearkats and advances to face four-time defending FCS champ North Dakota State (12-2) at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Sam Houston State (11-4), the FCS leader in total offense at 551 yards per game, never recovered after fumbling away the opening kickoff. Jacksonville State scored 17 first-quarter points and established a school record for first-half points by stretching its lead to 41-10 at intermission.
The Gamecocks dominated every phase before a record Burgess-Snow Field crowd of 23,692, rolling up 639 total yards, forcing four turnovers - all in the first half - and limiting the Bearkats to nearly 300 yards and 33 points below their season average.
Troymaine Pope was unstoppable again, rushing for 182 yards and one touchdown, while quarterback Eli Jenkins threw for 247 yards and two touchdowns while running for three more TDs.
Pope extended his school record for single-season rushing to 1,757 yards and is 29 yards shy of eclipsing the OVC record.
Jacksonville State is the first Ohio Valley Conference representative to play for the FCS championship since Eastern Kentucky in 1982.
"I don't think we could have played much better," said Jacksonville State second-year head coach John Grass. "The first half was probably the best half of football I've ever been around.
"We put ourselves in a position to win a national championship and that's right where we want to be. We're proud to be representing the Ohio Valley Conference and we're going to bring the national championship back home."
Connor Rouleau's game-opening kickoff was fumbled by Sam Houston State's Hayden Cagle and recovered by the Gamecocks' Santavius Oden at the Bearkats 31. Jacksonville State capitalized quickly on the turnover, needing just four plays to get to the end zone with Jenkins finishing off the drive with a 1-yard run with less than two minutes elapsed.
"Obviously the mistake we made on the opening kickoff really hurt us," said Sam Houston State coach K.C. Keeler. "You know when you're in those games where you know the next one is the national championship, sometimes those things just multiply."
The Bearkats fumbled again on their next series, with E.J. Moss pouncing on the loose football at the JSU 15. The Gamecocks needed just five plays this time with Pope breaking free on a 62-yard scamper with 9:42 remaining in the first.
Rouleau's 36-yard field goal midway through the first quarter put the Gamecocks ahead 17-0 and the rout was on.
The lead became 31-0 following Miles Jones' 3-yard TD and Jenkins' 12-yard scoring pass to Ruben Gonzalez. Rouleau added a 22-yard field goal and Pope scored on a 7-yard run as Jacksonville State opened a 41-7 lead with 59 seconds left in the half.
Sam Houston State never got closer than 31 points after halftime.
"The coaches have been talking about Frisco since we lost to Sam Houston State last year," said Jenkins. We've been preparing for this day."
"I told Coach Grass when we shook hands that was as good of a football team as I've played and we're hoping those guys go and win the national championship. They deserve it," Keeler said of the Gamecocks.