Dominant second half lifts Jacks over SIU

Jakob King, Sports Reporter

On a cold and windy Hobo Day, it was another strong defensive showing and a steady dose of Pierre Strong Jr. that propelled third-ranked South Dakota State to a 28-10 win over Southern Illinois.

Strong rushed for 229 yards and a touchdown and the SDSU (4-1, 1-0) defense shut down the SIU (2-3, 0-1) offense in the second half to stave off a potential upset in front of more than 13,000 at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.

The sophomore running back’s big day was especially important for the Jackrabbits on a day where quarterback J’Bore Gibbs threw for just 96 yards, though he was an efficient 10-for-15 and accounted for three touchdowns through the air.

SDSU’s offense managed just 71 rushing yards in the first half before exploding for 226 yards on the ground in the second half.

“We stayed patient,” said Strong. “We knew the runs were going to break open, we just needed to execute first. In the second half, we started executing better.” 

Trailing 10-9 entering the second half, the Jackrabbits came out and shut down the Salukis on both sides of the ball. SDSU outgained SIU 244-67, forcing four consecutive three-and-outs to start the second half and allowing just four first downs after the break.

The Salukis jumped out to an early 3-0 lead after SDSU’s C.J. Wilson fumbled deep in his own territory, setting SIU up with good field position it immediately turned into points.

SDSU responded on the ensuing possession when junior wide receiver Cade Johnson outran the Saluki defense for a 58-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Chase Vinatieri had the point after attempt blocked, but tacked on a field goal late in the second quarter to extend the lead to 9-3 after a 14-play, eight-plus minute drive.

After the Jacks’ long march, the Salukis got the ball back with little time to work with, but it didn’t matter. SIU needed only 2:22 to go 75 yards, punctuating the first 30 minutes with a go-ahead touchdown pass 12 seconds before halftime.

When the sun finally came out in the second half, the two offenses were still nowhere to be found as the teams traded three-and-outs on the first four possessions after halftime.

Strong broke that trend when he ran untouched for a 64-yard touchdown to give the lead back to the Jacks.

“All I saw was green grass, it just opened up,” Strong said of the play that put the Jacks in front for good. “I just ran through it and scored.”

While long runs from Strong are nothing new, the star running back’s performance drew praise from his head coach.

“I admire his ability to get away from people,” said head coach John Stiegelmeier. “He doesn’t really ever juke anybody, he’s a long-striding guy. He’s got great vision. What I really admire about him is his humble spirit.”

The teams combined for just two first downs in the entire third quarter, the second of which was a 48 yard run by Strong that set up a 12-yard touchdown catch by redshirt freshman wide receiver Jaxon Janke, extending the Jacks lead to 21-10 after another missed extra point by Vinatieri.

Janke found the end zone again in the fourth quarter. This time, Vinatieri made the extra point, making him the Jacks’ all-time leader for points scored.

Asked how he felt about his team’s response to going into halftime trailing, and then dominating in the second half, Stiegelmeier gushed about his team’s maturity.

“We’ve got a really mature football team,” said Stiegelmeier. “So (in the locker room at halftime) it wasn’t ‘we got this,’ it wasn’t ‘oh no’. My message to them was to just go out there and be yourself. Don’t fret, don’t stress, don’t worry. And I think they did that.” 

SDSU makes its first road trip of the conference season next weekend, visiting No. 18 Youngstown State. Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. Oct. 12.