Jackrabbits outlast Bobcats in a thriller in Brookings

Andrew Holtan, The Brookings Register
Posted 9/8/23

For the third time in the past 18 games South Dakota State and Montana State met on the football field and this was the craziest of them all. No. 1 ranked SDSU survived a last-second scare and held off the No. 3 Bobcats for a 20-16 victory on Saturday night at a sold out Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.

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Jackrabbits outlast Bobcats in a thriller in Brookings

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BROOKINGS – For the third time in the past 18 games South Dakota State and Montana State met on the football field and this was the craziest of them all. No. 1 ranked SDSU survived a last-second scare and held off the No. 3 Bobcats for a 20-16 victory on Saturday night at a sold out Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.

After a 35-yard touchdown from Griffin Wilde put the Jacks in front with 1:30 to play, Montana State had the ball on the SDSU 24 yard line with nine seconds left. Sean Chambers found Clevan Thomas Jr. in the back of the end zone and the officials ruled it a touchdown with no time on the clock. The play then went under review and the replay official ruled that Thomas was out of bounds when he caught the ball and they put one second left back on the clock.

An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the MSU bench pushed the Bobcats back 15 yards to the 40. Chambers then heaved another ball towards the end zone and it was short of the goal line, the Jacks knocked it down and improved to 2-0 and got the best of the Bobcats for the second-straight year.

“My heart sank when I thought he was in,” SDSU safety Cale Reeder said. “But then after seeing the review it looked like an incompletion, so we just had to trust that the refs were going to make the right call. We were relieved [when the call was overturned] and took advantage of having that extra shot.”

MSU took a 16-13 lead with 2:04 left in the game and the Jacks started the ensuing drive at their own 25 and it only took two plays for them to take the lead. Quarterback Mark Gronowski found Graham Goering for a 40-yard pass and that set up the screen to Wilde for the 35-yard score to put the Jacks in front.

Wilde, a freshman from Sioux Falls, scored a touchdown in last week’s opener against Western Oregon and Gronowski raved about him after the game. On Saturday night he was just as complimentary after the big win over the Bobcats.

“This kid is special. I said it last week, and he’s just going to keep making plays for us all season long. It was really cool and awesome to see him do that. I was telling him before the drive when the defense was out there that he was going to end up making a play to win the game and that’s what he ended up doing, which is really cool to see,” Gronowski said. 

Gronowski finished the game 13-of-22 for 184 yards and two touchdowns and he had 26 rushing yards and a fumble. It was an up-and-down game for the junior quarterback, but head coach Jimmy Rogers described what eventually ended up being the game-winning drive as clutch.

“Mark will probably tell you that it wasn’t his best game. He missed some reads and got tense at times, but in critical moments that kid clutch and we’re blessed to have him as our quarterback,” Rogers said.

It wasn’t the best of starts for SDSU as the Jacks trailed 10-0 at halftime. SDSU was moving the ball on its first possession and Gronowski fumbled on the MSU 43 and the Bobcats hopped on it. 

MSU then marched down the field and took a 7-0 lead when Chambers plunged into the end zone from two yards out with 4:14 left in the first quarter. On the Bobcats’ next possession they moved the ball into the SDSU red zone but the Jacks defense held them to a field goal.

Rogers said at halftime he didn’t have to say much to his players because they knew they didn’t play their best football in the first half.

“I told the men at halftime that it’s a 60-minute game. We didn’t play our best half and we responded in the second half. … They knew that they didn’t play their best football and knew that we were better than that,” Rogers said.

SDSU looked like a different team in the second half and scored on its opening possession. A heavy dose of Isaiah Davis and Amar Johnson moved the ball inside MSU’s 30 yard line and Gronowski then ran 27 yards to the end zone to cut the lead to 10-7.

The Jackrabbit defense then got a stop and SDSU took over at its own five yard line with just under six minutes to play in the third. SDSU kept the ball on the ground with Davis and moved the ball to the MSU 20 at the end of the quarter.

The Jacks had 113 yards on the ground in the quarter. Davis finished the game with 66 yards on 12 carries and Johnson had 47 yards on five carries. Rogers said he was impressed with the way Davis and Johnson ran in the third quarter.

“I’m really proud of Isaiah Davis. I think in the second half he you felt him carry us for awhile and Amar Johnson had a huge run [early in the second half] and that lit the fans up and moved the momentum in our favor,” Rogers said

SDSU would take the lead on the second play of the fourth quarter as Gronowski found tight end Zach Heins for a 16-yard score. Hunter Dustman missed the extra point and it was 13-10 with 14:15 left in the game. 

It didn’t take long for MSU to get into SDSU territory as Marqui Johnson returned the ensuing kick 59 yards to the SDSU 41 yard line. Fortunately for the Jacks, Reeder intercepted Chambers on an errant throw and the Jacks took over at their own 17. 

SDSU then went three-and-out and was forced to punt. The Bobcats were able to block the punt and recovered the ball at the SDSU one yard line with 12:13 left in the game. SDSU’s defense would stand tall on the goal line and force a field goal from Brenden Hall that tied the game with 10:15 to play.

MSU got into the red zone five times on Saturday night and had to kick three field goals and failed to score on the final possession. All four red zone stands came in front of the student section, who were wearing black shirts for SDSU’s black out. Rogers credited the students with helping SDSU hold MSU to field goals in the second half.

“I think the red zone defense was solid and I think the fans [really helped out]. … I wanted to defer [to the second half after winning the coin toss] and pin them into that end zone so that our student section could affect them there. I think they made a difference throughout the game and then when they were going in to score, the student section rose up again and got them off schedule. So, home field advantage? Yeah, we’ll take it. That’s like playing in the FargoDome,” Rogers said.

Another thing that helped SDSU in the red zone was some of the nine false start penalties that MSU had over the course of the game. Bobcat head coach Brett Vigen said the penalties were a combination of the loud sell out crowd and lack of discipline.

“It was a great college football environment here tonight. It was loud. Anytime you get into those situations you need to focus more and I suppose it was both [the crowd and being undisciplined]. There were way too many penalties to gain the edge we needed to,” Vigen said.

SDSU had 341 total yards of offense and MSU had 298 yards of offense. The Jacks had 157 yards on the ground and the Bobcats had 211 yards rushing. Chambers led the ‘Cats on the ground with 90 yards on 20 carries.

Heading into the third matchup in 21 months the two teams had each won a game. The first two games took place in the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs and after the game Gronowski said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Jackrabbits saw the Bobcats again in December.

“This has kind of turned into a rivalry. … They are a tough gritty team and they showed that today. Their defense played tough and fast both in that first half and second half, but we ended up overcoming it. It was a fun game as you saw and we’re going to end up facing them sometime in the playoffs, I’m expecting, so we just have to come out ready to go the next time we play them,” he said.