BROOKINGS — South Dakota State began its journey towards winning back-to-back national titles on Saturday and like many games in the regular season, it was light work for the Jackrabbits as they blew out Mercer 41-0.
“Really proud of the group to come off a bye week and start fast on both sides of the ball and really stay consistent,” said SDSU head coach Jimmy Rogers. “It might have been the most consistent we’ve been [this season] against a really well-coached and good football team.”
The attendance at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium was 10,171 on Saturday, which was a playoff record for SDSU. Rogers, who had been telling fans to come out and support the Jacks earlier in the week, started his press conference by thanking the fans.
“I want to start with the fans and thank the fans. The fans were awesome. Those that were in attendance were loud and made an impact in the game. I encourage all of you guys to bring the plus-one next week, all 10,000 of you. Bring one more person with you and let’s fill the stadium,” Rogers said.
No. 1 seeded SDSU moved the ball well on its first drive but had to settle for a field goal. The Jacks moved the ball inside the Mercer 10 yard line but Mark Gronowski was unable to complete a pass on third down. Hunter Dustman came on and hit a 26-yard field goal to put the Jacks up 3-0 a little under five minutes into the game.
The Jacks then put their foot on the gas in the second quarter. SDSU used a 13-play 74-yard drive to get its first touchdown of the game. Isaiah Davis capped off the drive with a four-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second quarter and SDSU led 10-0.
Mercer then went three-and-out and the Jacks took over at the Mercer 49. It took the Jacks just under four minutes to find the end zone once again as Gronowski connected with Jaxon Janke for a seven-yard score and that put the Jacks up 17-0 with 8:46 left in the first half.
Jaxon Janke finished the day with seven catches for 107 yards.
Mercer extended its next drive with a fake punt as Chris Hill took it 24 yards into SDSU territory. The Bears would then go for it again on fourth down and this time the Jackrabbits stopped them and took over with 2:31 left in the first half.
SDSU took advantage of the time left and scored one more time before halftime. Davis found the end zone again and this time it was from six yards out and the Jacks took a 24-0 lead into the locker room.
Davis picked up right where he left off in the second half. He scored his third touchdown of the game just over five minutes into the third quarter. This time it was a 42-yard dash and that carry put him over 100 yards for the 22nd time in his career and 10th time in the playoffs. Davis finished with 117 yards and said he steps his game up in the playoffs because he knows if the Jacks lose their season is over.
“The biggest thing is you’re not promised another week. [Mental strength coach Kristofer Kracht] talked to us on Monday and we’re only promised the next five days. So, you think about that and the big picture, this being my senior year, you take into account all the work you put in, all the guys put in, throughout the summer and the offseason, and to succeed in this opportunity that we have. So, we’re blessed to have another six days and the guys are going to take advantage of it,” Davis said.
The two teams traded interceptions later in the third quarter. Gronowski had a pass batted into the air at the line of scrimmage and fell into the hands of Ken Standley. Two plays later Dalys Beanum intercepted Carter Peevy and the Jacks regained possession at their own 10.
Dustman made a 19-yard field goal a minute and a half into the final quarter to make it 34-0. Angel Johnson then put an exclamation point on the win with an 80-yard touchdown run later in the quarter and that made the final 41-0.
SDSU ran for 346 yards as a team. Amar Johnson had 11 carries for 107 yards and Angel Johnson had 80 yards. Davis said he enjoyed seeing both of the Johnson’s have big days.
“This is exactly what we wanted to do. I’m blessed. Everyone got to eat. … It’s always fun to celebrate someone else's success. I get more excitement running down the sideline while Angel runs 70 yards down the field than when I score,” Davis said.
The Jacks had 571 total yards of offense. Gronowski finished 11-of-16 for 158 yards. Jadon Janke had two catches for 42 yards and Devon Cole had a 32-yard reception.
The SDSU defense held Mercer to just 151 total yards of offense. That was a season low for a Jackrabbit opponent and the Bears were just 1-of-10 on third down on Saturday. Rogers credited the stellar defensive performance to being in the right place at the right time and getting off the field on third down.
“We really preach alignment and assignment and where your eyes go and keeping leverage on the ball and not being outflanked by bodies. With a team like that shifts trades and motions immediately, you have to do a really good job of communicating. … We were able to create some movement up front defensively and create some pressure to make it hard to throw against us. We tackled well for the most part of the game and we were able to get off the field on third down,” Rogers said.
Beanum added that the Jacks wanted to get a shutout once it was in play in the fourth quarter.
“It definitely [means a lot to get the shutout]. We came into this game knowing that we should dominate this game and I think everyone kind of had a chip on their shoulder today. It was nice to prove something today,” he said.
SDSU will play No. 8 seeded Villanova next Saturday at 11 a.m. in the quarterfinals. The Jackrabbits and Wildcats have met twice in the postseason before. SDSU won both meetings, beating Villanova 10-7 in the second round in 2016 and winning 35-21 in the quarterfinals in 2021.
Rogers said the Jackrabbit players haven’t put more emphasis on winning a championship this year, but they know what’s at stake over the next few weeks and only want the season to end with them hoisting the trophy in Frisco once again.
“[The seniors] are just hungry to maximize every bit of what they have. It’s one last ride with one another before they depart. It’s a special group and we need to keep our focus and not worry about the bracket. … We have a tough one in Villanova [next week]. This has been a unique year in the sense of when we win and win like that we get excited for a little bit, but that’s almost forced joy. The standard is to win it all,” Rogers said.