SACRAMENTO – South Dakota State is headed to the FCS quarterfinals, as they defeated Sacramento State 24-19 Saturday night at Hornet Stadium in a game, that, depending on your point of view, either saw them fight off a spirited Hornets rally or do everything they could to blow a 20-plus point lead for the second time this season.
But the Jacks can focus their attention on everything they did wrong (and their troubling inability to finish games) next week in practice. At this point in the season they’ll take wins however they can get them, and their 10th of this season moves them two wins away from a return trip to Frisco and the FCS national championship.
“It’s the playoffs,” said cornerback Don Gardner, who had seven tackles and a touchdown-denying interception. “Scores don’t matter. It’s all about wins and losses. It could be 3-to-zero, as long as we get the win that’s all that matters.”
The Jacks scored all 24 of their points in the first half, roaring out to a 24-0 lead, but ended up needing to recover an onside kick and get one more first down in the final minute to fight off the Hornets’ comeback attempt.
SDSU was outgained 480-363 in the game, as their offense went completely silent in the second half when all it probably would’ve taken to put the game away was one more score. The Jacks had 295 yards of offense in the first half – just 68 in the second. They rushed for 162 yards in the first half – just 43 in the second.
So while a win is a win, there’s at least a little disappointment in how SDSU could not finish a game they had in hand, isn’t there?
“There is,” said coach John Stiegelmeier. “But we won. We’re gonna look at the second half and say, man, we can play better. We’re gonna say they blitzed a bunch and we didn’t pick it up at times. Sometimes they had the better call. We’ve got to play better and we’ve got to respond better.”
Jackrabbit offense stalls in second half
Isaiah Davis and Pierre Strong actually had more carries in the first half (18) than the second (15) when the Jacks were protecting their lead, and had 118 of their 181 combined yards in the first (Davis finished with 108 yards and Strong 73). Chris Oladokun rushed for 50 yards before sacks and completed 12-of-23 passes for 158 yards, but was just 2-for-7 in the second half.
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“I always wish we’d have run it more,” Stiegelmeier said. “We have two of the best backs in the nation and we’ve got a pretty good O-line. But I’m not gonna second-guess our coaches. I know fans were yelling ‘run the ball’ but we won the football game. The running wasn’t easy. We’ll look at it, and we’ll make right decisions going forward.”
The Jacks built their lead impressively. Strong capped off a breezy opening drive with a 6-yard touchdown run to make it 7-0, and Cole Frahm added a 45-yard field goal. After Gardner’s interception in the end zone killed a promising Hornets drive the Jacks went 88 yards in just seven plays with Davis scoring from seven yards out, and he added a 6-yard scoring run later to make it 24-0. The rout was on, it seemed.
Pierre Strong, Jr., jukes and jives around left end for a 5-yard touchdown run ... 17th rushing score of the season for the Walter Payton Award finalist#GoJacks🐰🏈
Video: ESPN+ pic.twitter.com/mp0NOzrCCw
— SDSU Football (@GoJacksFB) December 5, 2021
But Sacramento State got on the board with a field goal before half, giving them just enough momentum to believe they were still in it.
And when they came out in the second half they blitzed the Jacks to death, and SDSU did not respond to that well at all.
The Hornets went 87 yards in 13 plays to cut it to 24-10 on a 3-yard pass from Jake Dunniway to Pierre Williams, and after a 48-yard field goal by Kyle Sentkowski, launched a 13-play, 89-yard drive that ended in a 1-yard shovel pass from Asher O’Hara to Isaiah Gable to cut it to 24-19. A 2-point conversion attempt failed, and so did the onside kick, allowing SDSU to run out the clock, but not until a fourth-and-1 conversion by Davis on a trick play where Oladokun pretended to angrily run to the sidelines as the ball was snapped.
“We dug ourselves a hole against a really good football team,” said Hornets coach Troy Taylor. “You put yourself down 24-0 and you’re fighting an uphill fight. But I’m happy we fought back. We made some plays, just not enough.”
Dunniway threw for 331 yards but was intercepted twice. Cade Terveer had a pick and 1.5 sacks for SDSU, who got nine tackles from Isaiah Stalbird and eight from Logan Backhaus.
It was just the second playoff appearance in program history for Sacramento State (9-3), who won the Big Sky this year but are now 0-2 in the playoffs. They were the No. 4 seed in 2019 and again this year, but after the first round bye were knocked out in the second round both times.
With the win, SDSU (10-3) advances to face Villanova on Saturday in Philadelphia. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. central time. The Jacks know if they play like they did in the first half in Sacramento they’ll have success. But they also know their struggles in finishing off teams is bound to catch up with them if it isn’t resolved.
“I just think that goes to playing with effort, most importantly, and playing harder than the guy in front of you and executing,” Oladokun said. “A lot of those times it’s not Xs and Os, it’s guys making plays and executing.”
This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: FCS playoffs: South Dakota State hangs on to beat Sacramento State