But that day soon turned into a second-half nightmare.
The No. 18 Gamecocks built a 24-point lead with 7:25 left in the fourth quarter against Ohio Valley Conference rival Eastern Kentucky, but the Colonels made a furious comeback to claim a stunning 52-48 victory at Burgess-Snow Field.
It's the largest lead lost by the Gamecocks (5-4, 4-2) in the fourth quarter since a 17-point meltdown at Tennessee Tech last season.
“A total disaster,” Gamecock junior receiver Alan Bonner said. “Everything turned so quickly because we got conservative. We relaxed and they still had some fight in them. We let up and they kept fighting. I played my heart out and left it on the field for the seniors.”
No one would argue with Bonner there. The Newnan, Ga., native caught a career-high nine passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns (31 and 74 yards) on his 21st birthday.
Bonner's 205 receiving yards is the second most in the school's Division I history, just behind Ronald Bonner's 210 yards against Texas State on Nov. 15, 1997. His nine catches rank third-most in JSU's Division I history and the most since Maurice Dupree hauled in nine passes at Georgia Tech on Aug. 28, 2008.
The tide turned for the worse for the Gamecocks with 6:42 left in the contest. Colonel junior quarterback T.J. Pryor, who threw for 282 yards and five touchdowns, connected with receiver Cameron Bailey on a 60-yard touchdown strike. Luke Pray's kick made it 48-31 Gamecocks.
On the Gamecocks' ensuing possession, head coach Jack Crowe made several substitutions, including senior running back Jordan Allen.
On a fourth-and-6 from the Colonel 24, Allen fumbled the ball which was scooped up by sophomore defensive lineman Anthony Brown. Brown rambled 71 yards for the touchdown, cutting JSU's lead to 10 at 48-38 with 5:23 to go in the game.
“I think that 71-yard fumble recovery was just a momentum shift that we never could turn back the other way,” Crowe said. “I made some substitutions on fourth down, and quiet honestly, didn't kick the field goal because I didn't want to have it blocked and it was just the most conservative thing to do. I took some people out of the game and put some people in the game, and that was a major coaching error to be honest with you.
“As a coach, this is a real lesson when you think you've got the game won when you are up 24 points with seven minutes left. Giving up 28 points in the fourth quarter is almost an unbelievable scenario.”
The Colonels (6-3, 5-1) recovered the onside kick at their own 42 and needed just four plays to find the end zone again. This time, Pryor connected with sophomore receiver Justin Williams on an 18-yard touchdown pass. With 4:14 remaining, the Colonels had crept to within three points, trailing 48-45.
Crowe reinserted his starters on the Gamecocks' next possession, which began at their own 9-yard line. Three plays yielded only six yards, forcing Coty Blanchard to punt.
The Colonels set up at JSU's 37 following the return. After Pryor threw an incomplete pass, he took to the air again and found junior receiver Tyrone Goard for the touchdown. Pray's kick was on the mark, giving the Colonels a 52-48 lead with just 1:24 remaining.
That looked as if it would be enough time for the Gamecocks to pull off another fourth-quarter comeback. Blanchard marched the Gamecocks down the field and had a first-and-goal at the Colonel 3-yard line with 17 seconds left. After a JSU timeout, Blanchard rushed for a yard on the next play, then spiked it to set up a third-and-goal at the 2 with two ticks left on the clock.
Gamecock senior running back Calvin Middleton took the ball to the left side of the line on the final play of the game, but was tackled one yard shy of the end zone.
Middleton finished the game with 73 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
“They did a good job on closing down,” said Blanchard, who completed 19 of 28 passes for a career-best 300 yards and two touchdowns. “We got up with four seconds and got the ball spiked, and the last play we converted on it all night except we ran it a different way. We ran it left again, so that was the second time we had run it. It worked perfect. Calvin got 50 or 60 yards on it the first time, so we were pretty confident in it. If it happens again, we're going to give the ball to him again.”
The end result also spoiled a solid performance by Gamecock junior running back Washaun Ealey. Ealey tallied 217 yards and two touchdowns on 17 totes.
His 83-yard touchdown with 7:25 to go in the fourth gave the Gamecocks their biggest lead of the game at 48-24. Ealey is just one yard shy of 1,000 rushing yards this season.
Ealey gave the Gamecocks their first lead of the game on a 61-yard touchdown run with 10:22 to go in the first quarter. James Esco's extra point made it 7-3 JSU.
Goard, who caught five passes for 123 yards and three touchdowns, scored his first in the game for the Colonels on a 29-yard pass from Pryor with 3:34 left in the opening quarter. It gave Eastern Kentucky a 10-7 advantage.
Esco tied the game at 10 with a 42-yard field goal with just 32 ticks left in the first.
Blanchard put the Gamecocks back out in front at 17-10 with his 19-yard touchdown run with 10:39 to go in the second quarter.
Eastern Kentucky closed out the half by scoring the next two touchdowns - a 1-yard run by H.B. Banjoman at the 3:14 mark and a 42-yard Pryor-to-Goard touchdown connection just five seconds before intermission. Those two scores put the Colonels up 24-17 at the half.