BROOKINGS – Win and in. South Dakota State needed a win Saturday to secure a spot in the FCS Playoffs and the Jackrabbits came away victorious as they defeated North Dakota 24-21 in their regular season finale.
SDSU junior cornerback Malik Lofton intercepted UND’s Tommy Schuster at the SDSU 12 yard line with 42 seconds left as the Fighting Hawks were attempting to tie or win the game.
“It was a surreal feeling [getting the game-winning interception],” Lofton said. “There’s a lot of senior’s that that could’ve been their last game, so I owed it to them to do that. I made sure that happened.”
With the win SDSU finished the regular season with an 8-3 record overall and went 5-3 in the Missouri Valley. SDSU will host University of California Davis on Saturday in the first round of the FCS Playoffs, but SDSU quarterback Chris Oladokun said the playoffs started Saturday for SDSU.
“[The] playoffs did start today for us. It was a 1-0 mentality. It’s a 1-0 mentality every week, but this was definitely a playoff game for us. North Dakota, that’s a good team right there. Every game in the Missouri Valley is tough, so I’m just really proud of our guys,” Oladokun said.
Each team punted on their first two possessions. SDSU opened the scoring early in the second quarter when Oladokun found Jadon Janke for a 17-yard touchdown. Cole Frahm added the extra point and it was 7-0 Jackrabbits with 14:13 left in the first half.
UND responded with a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that took 7:07 off the clock. The drive was capped off by a 16-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Schuster to Garett Maag to tie the game with 7:02 left in the first half.
The Jacks would then drive to their own 46 on their next possession, but the drive stalled and they were forced to punt. UND went three-and-out after the punt and SDSU took over at its own 37.
Facing a third and 17 at the UND 23 yard line with just under a minute to play in the first half, Oladokun found Tucker Kraft around the 20 and he scampered into the end zone to give SDSU the lead just before halftime.
UND got the ball to start the second half and tied the game after a 12 play, 73-yard drive. Backup quarterback Quincy Vaughn came in and pushed the ball over the goal line from one yard out to make it 14-14 with 9:30 left in the third quarter.
The Jacks drove all the way down to the UND one yard line on their next possesion and faced a fourth and goal. Oladokun tried to put the ball over the goal line on a sneak, but the refs ruled that the ball did not cross the goal line and the Jacks turned it over on downs with 3:49 remaining in the third.
SDSU’s defense stepped up after the turnover on downs and forced a three-and-out. The Jacks had the ball on the UND 21 when Oladokun threw a pass to Jadon Janke in the end zone. The ball was tipped up into the air and caught by Jaxon Janke for a touchdown. Frahm added the extra point and SDSU led 21-14 with 25 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Fighting Hawks answered with another long touchdown drive. Otis Weah capped off a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive with a seven-yard touchdown run to make it 21-21 with 9:34 left in the game. UND converted on fourth down once and third down twice on the drive.
SDSU drove the ball to the UND 21 yard line, but the drive stalled and Frahm was forced to attempt a 38-yard field goal. He made the kick and the Jacks took a 24-21 lead with 5:23 left in the game.
UND started its next drive at its own 21 yard line. With a little under two minutes left in the game, the Fighting Hawks faces a fourth down and three at the SDSU 48 and Schuster found Jacob Richter at the SDSU 23 to put UND in field goal range. Two plays later, Schuster was picked off by Lofton and the Jacks came away with the win.
SDSU was 0-2 in games decided by one score heading into this game. SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier said a close win like this can do a lot for his team heading into the playoffs.
“I think it can give us some momentum, build confidence. There’s no doubt a win and being in the playoffs will build confidence. I think there’s a unique pressure on our players because the expectation from both inside the locker room and outside of the locker room is to get to the playoffs. Especially after the spring season. We’re one of two teams that are going to be in the playoffs for a 10th year in-a-row. That’s pretty special pressure,” Stiegelmeier said.
SDSU outgained UND 368-329. The Fighting Hawks were 13-19 on third down and 2-2 on fourth down.
“I think number one, [UND] came after us,” Stiegelmeier said. “A play call here and it’s a chess game. I’m surprised though at the difference in how affective they were on third down and how inaffective we were. I just think it’s the chess game of football.”
Oladokun was 19-for-26 with 236 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Jaxon Janke had eight catches for 97 yards. Jadon Janke had five catches for 50 yards. Tucker Kraft had two catches for 32 yards and Zach Heins had two catches for 29 yards.
The Jacks had 129 yards on the ground. Pierre Strong Jr. led the way with 12 carries for 72 yards. Isaiah Davis, who missed the last nine games with a shoulder injury, returned to the field and had 64 yards on nine carries in his return.
Oladokun said Davis brings a good change of pace to the Jacks’ offense.
“… I think you have a couple plays that you give [Davis], just because he’s a different change of pace back than Pierre [Strong]. We’ve got dudes all around and having Isaiah back, for defenses they have to plan to stop [him] and they have to plan to stop Pierre and our wideouts and everyone. They have to plan to stop him and I think it’s definitely an advantage for us. I’m just really happy we got him back,” Oladokun said.
This is the 10th-straight season the Jacks have made the playoffs. SDSU and UC Davis have met seven times before and the Jacks are 5-2.
UC Davis also went 8-3 in the regular season. The Aggies went 5-3 in the Big Sky and finished in fifth place. Both SDSU and UC Davis beat FBS teams this season. The Jacks beat Colorado State 42-23 and the Aggies topped Tulsa 19-17. Only 12 FCS teams beat FBS teams this season.
It was the first time since 2015 that the Jacks did not earn a top-eight seed. SDSU lost to Montana 24-17 on the road in the first round in 2015. The Jacks made the National Championship in the spring and fell to Sam Houston State 23-21. That was the farthest SDSU has ever gone. The Jacks made the semifinals in 2017 and 2018.
The winner of the SDSU and UC Davis game will take on No. 4 seeded Sacramento State. Kickoff between the Jackrabbits and Aggies is scheduled for 2 p.m.