COLUMBIA, SC — The stat sheet from ECU’s game at South Carolina was one that Zay Jones might want to frame and proudly admire someday.
Someday, but not Saturday.
That’s because when the senior wide receiver looks at the numbers on the page for now, he’s too distracted by the score line at the top to notice the 22 receptions that helped put his name into two college football record books.
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South Carolina 20, ECU 15 | Sept. 17, 2016
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The only stat that mattered to Jones in the immediate aftermath of his career game at Williams-Brice Stadium is the one showing that the Pirates suffered a heartbreaking 20-15 loss to the Gamecocks.
“With all due respect, I’m not worried about that right now,” Jones said of the school and American Athletic Conference records he broke in a losing effort. “I’ve got guys in the locker room that are hurt and disappointed. Right now my focus is on the team, not me.”
Jones did everything he could to help that team effort by hauling in virtually every pass quarterback Philip Nelson threw his way.
He had 10 catches by halftime and despite plenty of attention from the Gamecocks’ secondary, he got even more over the final two periods. During one drive late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, the 6-foot-1, 197-pound senior caught five passes in a seven-play span.
The last of those, a 14-yard grab across the middle, was his 18th of the game — breaking the ECU mark set by Justin Hardy on Oct. 12, 2013 against Tulane.
Jones went on to catch four more balls, finishing one short of the NCAA record of 23 set by UNLV’s Randy Gatewood in 1994 and Eastern Michigan’s Tyler Jones in 2008.
“He’s phenomenal,” center J.T. Boyd said of his roommate Zay Jones. “He puts in the work. He deserves to play like that. He’s watching film all the time at the house, running extra routes with Phil after practice. Those two deserve to have good games and they put on for the team like they should.”
Jones came into Saturday’s game having already caught 17 passes for 253 yards on the young season. It’s a total he surpassed in one afternoon.
“Our game plan this week involved a lot of getting Zay the ball and putting him in positions to make plays,” Nelson said. “The coaches called the plays. Trust me, I go through my reads and he finds the ball. That’s just our offense.”
One thing that helped Jones get open so consistently is that he moves around so much in coach Scottie Montgomery’s attack. His frequent shifting from outside receiver to inside and back, working both sides of the field, made it difficult for the Gamecocks to locate him until the ball was in his hands.
“When you come on road games you want to pack the bus with a lot of guys with big-time character. Those are the guys that always play well,” Montgomery said. “(Jones) has big-time character and is a big-time player. When you put those two things together, it doesn’t matter where you go.”
As productive a game as Jones had catching the ball on a day in which he moved past Dwayne Harris into second place behind Hardy on the Pirates’ all-time receptions list, the biggest hole in the star receiver’s stat line was his inability to get into the end zone.
But he was hardly alone.
Four times ECU drove inside the USC 10-yard line during final three quarters and on all three occasions, it came away without scoring. It wasn’t until the final 2½ minutes that Nelson finally hit Devin Anderson with their team’s only touchdown of the day.
On the ensuing 2-point conversion try, Jones was on the throwing end of a pass that fell short of Nelson in the end zone.
It proved to be a frustrating ending to what could have been an unforgettable day.
“I always expect to do well and I expect my teammates to do well,” Jones said. “… Our offense shot ourselves in the foot and it showed. We put some great drives together, it just sucks that we couldn’t finish and we came up short. It hurts. It hurts really bad.”