FLORENCE, Ala. -- The University of North Alabama will face its fourth consecutive nationally ranked opponent and third straight to open the 2021 season when the Lions travel to Jacksonville, Ala., Saturday to face their oldest rival in the Jacksonville State Gamecocks.
The UNA-JSU rivalry dates back to the first football game in UNA’s modern history in 1949 and has been revived in recent years with the Lions’ move to Division I and the Football Championship Subdivision.
Saturday, UNA will face the 11th ranked Gamecocks at Burgess-Snow Field at JSU Stadium with kickoff set for 6 p.m.
North Alabama closed its 2020 season with a road game at eighth ranked FBS opponent BYU. The Lions then opened the 2021 season with home games against 17th ranked Southeastern Louisiana and 24th ranked Chattanooga. Saturday’s game will mark the first time in school history that any UNA team has faced three straight nationally ranked teams in the regular season.
“Jacksonville State is a very good football team that has played two FBS teams to open the season and just beat a Power 5 FBS team in Florida State on the road last weekend,” said UNA Head Football Coach Chris Willis. “Their defense is very strong and they’ve got things going in the right direction.
“They are a solid team, but we have to worry about us and making the adjustments that will help us be successful,” Willis added. “We have played two totally different games so far, and even played different in each half of each game. The first we moved the ball and put up points and then couldn’t move the ball offensively at all last week. We couldn’t get off the field on defense in the second half in the opener and then held Chattanooga to just three points in the second half last week. So we like the pieces to everything are there, we just have to find a way to put them all together.”
Willis said despite the 0-2 start and facing another ranked opponent, his team is looking forward to the challenge.
“There is no quit in this team,” he said. “We have been having good practices and positive meetings. Everyone is frustrated because we are not used to being in this position but we have nine games left to get things fixed and headed in the right direction.”
In last weekend’s 20-0 loss to Chattanooga, the Lions were held scoreless for the first time in their last 113 games and just the second time in their last 220 games. UNA was also held under 100 yards of total offense for the first time since 1985.
JSU, now 1-1 overall, used a 59-yard Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game to defeat Florida State 20-17.
In last year’s meeting, Jacksonville State overcame a 17-14 deficit late in the third quarter to down North Alabama 24-17 in the two school’s first meeting at Braly Stadium since 1992.
A touchdown pass from Rett Files to Jakobi Byrd with 1:57 left in the third quarter put UNA on top 17-14 but the Gamecocks scored before the end of the quarter on a one-yard Zerrick Cooper run to regain the lead at 21-17 with just four seconds left in the third.
The only score in the fourth quarter was a 36-yard field goal by Alen Karajic to extend the lead to 24-17.
UNA had one last chance but a Hail-Mary pass from Dever was picked off by JSU’s Nicario Harper at the one-yard line as time expired.
The Gamecocks lead the all-time series 27-18-3 and are 12-1-1 in the last 14 meetings. UNA held a 17-15-2 advantage after a third straight win over JSU in 1985.
UNA’s last win in the series came on September 13, 2003, with Mark Hudspeth as head coach. The Lions won that game 28-16 in Jacksonville and went on to a 13-1 season that ended with a loss in the semifinals of the Division II playoffs. JSU went on to win the Ohio Valley Conference Championship that season.