By Jeremy Hoeck
Facing a must-win in front of a more-than-capacity crowd on the road, the South Dakota State football team responded to adversity after adversity.
And came away with a rivalry victory.
The Jackrabbits committed two key mistakes in the final 4:34 but made the biggest play of the day on an interception return to beat the University of South Dakota 27-12 in Saturday afternoon’s much-anticipated showdown at the DakotaDome.
When the dust had settled, the Jackrabbits (7-4, 4-3) kept their post-season hopes alive.
“Obviously it was a big game. We knew we had to win these next two games,” said SDSU receiver Jason Schneider, who had 88 yards and two touchdowns receiving.
“Coach Stig talked about being in a world series and being down one to three, and we have to win the next two games,” he added. “And that’s our goal every year. It was a big game, I’m just glad we came out on top.”
In dramatic fashion, no less.
For a game 10 years in waiting in Vermillion, the final four minutes and 34 seconds had enough twists and turns to satisfy the crowd of 10,845 – well beyond the dome capacity.
Down 20-12, the Coyotes (4-7, 3-4) blocked an SDSU field goal try but could not capitalize. Kevin Earl was sacked on 4th & 11 by R.C. Kilgore, who came untouched through the middle.
On the second play for the Jacks, though, standout Zach Zenner fumbled the ball and Devin Taverna’s recovery set up USD deep in SDSU territory. On the first play from scrimmage, Earl’s pass to the left sideline was intercepted by Winston Wright and returned 80 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.
The post-game joke was that typically in that situation, a defensive player would take a knee.
“It’s something that we talk every week, take a knee during two minutes,” Wright said. “I caught it, saw that I was in bounds, looked up at the clock and saw there was three minutes.”
Two plays and 1:23 later, the Jackrabbits were able to celebrate.
“They (players) would say this is a sweet victory in Vermillion,” head coach John Stiegelmeier said. “A great rivalry, a great environment for a football game.
“The bottom line, we won, that’s our goal; one and oh.”
For the Coyotes, meanwhile, they struggled with many of the missed opportunities that cost them most of the season – namely on offense, where USD was forced into a near one-dimensional state.
“We’ve got to make more plays, and we’re not quite there yet,” head coach Joe Glenn said. “It would have been a lot better if we had a running game to help us make plays, and we didn’t have it.”
Time and time again during his post-game press conference, Glenn harped on the lack of a running game with redshirt freshmen Trevor Bouma (6 carries for 15 yards) and Jordan Roberts (8 for 31) hampered with injuries. For the game, the Coyotes ran for 59 yards and passed for 325.
“We just knew coming in that we could take advantage of things in the passing game, and for the most part we were able to do that, but like coach said, we weren’t able to offset it with the running game,” said receiver Terrance Terry, who caught nine passes for 115 yards and a score.
Statistically, the Coyotes were a perfect 3-for-3 in the red zone, but the fact that USD made field goals of 21 and 25 yards proved it was deep in Jackrabbit territory but came up short.
“Things get a lot tighter when you start getting in the red zone,” said Earl, who completed 21-of-48 passes. “Running the ball gets harder, throwing gets tighter; smaller windows.
“It’s just tough, we weren’t able to put the ball in the end zone. That definitely would have helped us out if we converted some of those red zones into touchdowns.”
Following a defensive first half that saw the Jacks lead 13-6 at the break, USD reached the end zone on a 13-yard pass from Earl to Terry at the 7:04 mark of the third quarter. SDSU maintained a 13-12 lead after the extra point was missed.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, SDSU’s Austin Sumner found Schneider again on a 5-yard pass play.
USD’s next drive came up inches short on a 4th & 6 pass to Josh Vander Maten, giving the ball back to the Jacks in what, at the time, seemed like a key turning point.
There were many of those feelings Saturday, particularly in the final five minutes.
One such key time was when SDSU linebacker R.C. Kilgore sacked Earl on 4th and 11 deep in Jackrabbit territory with 3:04 to play. Then followed Zenner’s fumble, though, but SDSU would later escape harm.
“Everything clicked today, we came out played hard,” Kilgore said. “We could look in each others eyes and we knew it was going to be one of our best performcances of the year.”
The Jackrabbits head to Youngstown State Saturday for a chance to win and likely qualify for the FCS playoffs. The Coyotes, meanwhile, travel to top-ranked North Dakota State in Fargo.
You can follow Jeremy Hoeck on Twitter at twitter.com/jhoeck.