BROOKINGS – South Dakota State trailed Southern Illinois 20-10 at halftime of the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs on Sunday night. In the second half, the Jackrabbit defense forced turnovers and their offense scored points off of those turnovers and SDSU came away with a 31-26 comeback victory.
“[At halftime] I told them something to the affect of I wanted them to play one play at a time, forget the result and then do it again and again and again. … But it was their commitment to playing better, not what I said because I’ve told them that 100 times. It’s what’s in your heart, not what you hear in your ears,” said SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier.
SDSU forced three turnovers and scored 14 points off of them. SIU racked up 443 yards of offense, but it wasn’t enough. The Salukis punted just once all game.
“This game does a ton for our confidence,” Stiegelmeier said. “… I think [this team] is so connected. They’re so joyful and excited for their teammates making plays. We play one play at a time and it would be really sweet to win next weekend, but first we have to win tomorrow.”
It didn’t take long for SDSU to get on the scoreboard. The Jacks went 60 yards on five plays in 2 minutes, 42 seconds. The drive was capped off by a 23-yard touchdown pass from Mark Gronowski to Jadon Janke.
The Salukis answered with an impressive drive of their own. They went 75 yards on 11 plays and 327-pound ZeVeyon Furcon plunged into the end zone from a yard out to make it 7-7 with 7:25 left in the first quarter.
The teams traded punts and SIU broke the tie with 12:17 left in the second quarter when Avante Cox ran it in from 11 yards out. The Salukis then added a 19-yard field goal with just under 7 minutes left in the first half to make it 17-7. The Jacks then failed to convert on fourth down on SIU’s 39 yard line.
The Salukis capitalized on the turnover on downs and made a 33-yard field goal with 22 seconds left in the half. Isaiah Davis had a 50-yard kickoff return to give SDSU the ball at the SIU 48. Gronowski then found Pierre Strong Jr. for 31-yard pass and Cole Frahm connected on a 34-yard field goal to make it 20-10 at halftime.
“[The field goal] was huge,” Gronowski said. “That built a lot of confidence going into the second half. It gave us some juice and it felt like we can do this and this game is ours, really.”
SIU was moving the ball well on the first possession of the second half, but the drive stalled out when Stone Lebanowitz was intercepted in the end zone by Josh Manchigiah. SDSU capitalized on the turnover as it went 80 yards on four plays and Gronowski found Janke for a 26-yard touchdown to make it 20-17 with 8:06 left in the third quarter.
SIU looked like it had extended its lead to two scores when Lebanowitz found Javon Williams Jr. for a 17-yard touchdown, but the referees called him out of bounds at the 1-yard-line. SDSU then stuffed the Salukis on four consecutive plays and took over with 14:57 left in the game.
The Jacks capitalized on the turnover on downs as Gronowski had a 67-yard touchdown run to make it 24-20 SDSU with 11:41 left in the game.
“One of our lineman came around and made a great block on one of their linebackers,” Gronowski said. “I basically had just one guy to beat and broke that tackle and it was off to the races from there and I just had to keep running as fast as I could and keep my feet high and my knees high and not get tripped up at the end.”
SIU then fumbled on its own 45-yard-line with 9:12 left in the game. The Jacks kept the theme of making the Salukis pay for their mistakes as Davis ran it in from 4 yards out to make it 31-20 with 7:11 left in the game.
The Salukis answered right away as Labanowitz found Landon Lenoir for a 31-yard touchdown. SIU went for a two-point conversion but failed and it was 31-26 with 5:37 left.
SIU forced an SDSU punt with 2:19 left in the game and got the ball on its own 22-yard-line. SDSU’s defense stepped up one more time as Michael Griffin II picked off Lebanowitz at the SDSU 11 with 13 seconds left to seal the deal.
SDSU had 414 yards of total offense. The Jacks continued to run the ball well as they had 231 yards on the ground.
Gronowski had 142 yards rushing on 13 carries. He was 9-for-16 with 183 yards and two touchdowns through the air. Strong had 48 yards rushing and Davis had 42. Strong also had 43 yards receiving and Janke had 49 yards receiving.
“Big 70-yard run by [Gronowski] and he does that,” Lebanowitz said. “He does that. Kid’s a superstar and he’s young as hell. … They’re my pick to win it all and I think they’re pretty much everyone’s pick. The way they’re rolling right now.”
Lebanowitz was 25-for-36 for 247 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Lenoir had 129 yards receiving and Jerron Collins had 60. Avante Cox had five catches for 58 yards.
There were 3,547 people at the game Sunday night. Stiegelmeier said he was impressed with the turnout and how loud the fans were.
“I did not expect that from our fans. That was an unbelievable environment. I’m so proud to be a Jackrabbit, a graduate of South Dakota State, because they came and they impacted the football game,” Stiegelmeier said.
SDSU will host Delaware next weekend in the semifinals with a trip to Frisco, Tex., on the line.
No. 1 SOUTH DAKOTA STATE 31,
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 26
SIU (6-4) 7 13 0 6 – 26
SDSU (7-1) 7 3 7 14 – 31
SDSU – Jadon Janke 23 pass from Mark Gronowski (Cole Frahm kick), 12:18
SIU – ZeVeyo 1 run (Nico Gualoni kick), 7:25
SIU – Avante Cox 11 run (Gualdoni kick), 12:17
SIU – Gualdoni 19 FG, 6:57
SIU – Gualdoni 33 FG, :22
SDSU – Frahm 34 FG, :00
SDSU – Janke 26 pass from Gronowski (Frahm kick), 8:06
SDSU – Gronowski 67 run (Frahm kick), 11:41
SDSU – Isaiah Davis 4 run (Frahm kick), 7:11
SIU – Landon Lenoir 31 pass from Stone Labanowitz (pass failed), 5:37
First Downs 27 16
Plays-Yards 80-443 49-414
Rushes-Yards 42-127 33-231
C-A-Int.-Yards 27-38-2-316 9-16-0-183
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 0-0
Penalties-Yards 3-20 6-51
Punts-Avg.-I20-TB 1-37-0-0 3-31.7-0-0
Kickoffs-Avg.-TB 6-58.3-2 5-64.8-4
Punt Returns-Yards-TD 1-16-0 0-0-0
Kickoff Returns-Yards-TD 0-0-0 4-112-0
INT Returns-Yards-TD 0-0-0 2-4-0
Fumble Returns-Yards-TD 0-0-0 0-0-0
Miscellaneous Yards 0 0
Possession Time 35:43 24:17
Third-down Conversions 9-of-17 5-of-11
Fourth-down Conversions 1-of-3 1-of-2
Red Zone 5-2-2 2-1-0
Sacks By-Yards 1-13 1-3
Field Goals 2-for-2 1-for-2
RUSHING: SIU – Justin Strong 15-38, Stone Labonowitz 7-38, Javon Williams Jr. 10-25, Romeri Elliott 6-15, Avante Cox 2-10, Zevoya Fucron 2-1. SDSU – Mark Gronowski 13-142, Pierre Strong Jr. 9-45, Isaiah Davis 10-42, TEAM 1-(-1).
PASSING: SIU – Stone Labanowitz 25-36-2-247, Javon Williams Jr. 2-2-0-69. SDSU – Mark Gronowski 9-16-0-183.
RECEIVING: SIU – Landon Lenoir 6-129, Jerron Rollins 5-60, Avante Cox 5-58, Javon Williams Jr. 3-35, Justin Strong 5-17, Romeir Elliott 1-9, Branson Combs 2-8. SDSU – Jadon Janke 2-49, Pierre Strong Jr. 2-43, Tucker Kraft 2-33, Blake Kunz 1-30, Jaxon Janke 1-24, Isaiah Davis 1-4.
DEFENSE: SIU – Jordan Berner 7 tackles, .5 sack; Qua Brown 7 tackles; Bryson Strong 6 tackles; Bryce Notree 5 tackles, .5 sack. SDSU – Logan Backhaus 14 tackles; Adam Bock 13 tackles; Michael Griffin II 9 tackles, INT; Josh Manchigiah 5 tackles, INT; Xavier Ward FR; Graham Spalding sack.
A – 3,547.