Second-half miscues doom No. 4 Jackrabbits

Jakob King, Sports Reporter

With an Illinois State team desperate to bolster its playoff resume in Brookings for a top-15 matchup, South Dakota State had a chance for a statement win.

It didn’t get it.

Turnovers and penalties cost the No. 4 Jackrabbits down the stretch, as the No. 12 Redbirds scored the game’s final 17 points in a 27-18 come from behind win Saturday afternoon at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.

Keaton Heide made his second consecutive start at quarterback in relief of the injured J’Bore Gibbs. Though he threw for just a modest 171 yards, he showed off his ability to move in the pocket and avoid rushers, and threw accurately for most of the game.

But in the end, it was two Heide turnovers in the fourth quarter that led to 11 ISU points and made the difference.

Illinois State (7-3, 4-2 MVFC) held SDSU’s star running back Pierre Strong Jr. to a season-low 34 yards, while its star rusher, James Robinson, ran for 98 yards and a touchdown. SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier said that the inability to run the ball was the biggest factor in a slow day for the Jackrabbit offense.

“We couldn’t get by them,” Stiegelmeier said. “That’s where Pierre excels is when he gets out in the open and we just couldn’t do it. Pierre did not have his best day.”

Aside from the lack of rushing yards, the Jackrabbits (7-3, 4-2 MVFC) made too many mistakes to win the game. They ended the game with four turnovers, which the Redbirds scored 17 points off of, and a missed field goal while trailing in the fourth quarter.

“We’ve got to hang on to the ball, we’ve got to eliminate dumb penalties, those are things we can control,” Stiegelmeier said. “I could have made better decisions in certain situations, hindsight’s always really good. But we didn’t play well enough to win and they did.”

Offense was hard to come by for both teams in the first half. After ISU scored a touchdown on its opening drive, it took until four seconds remaining in the first half for the visitor to add more points.

The Jackrabbits responded to the early Redbird score with a field goal by sophomore Cole Frohm, who made his first career attempt after replacing the struggling senior Chase Vinatieri.

After an SDSU three-and-out, sophomore punter Ben Dinkel pinned the Redbirds offense inside its own 5-yard line with a 68-yard punt.

On the first play of the drive, quarterback Brady Davis was called for intentional grounding in his own end zone, resulting in a safety that cut the ISU lead to 7-5.

A 21-yard scoring connection from Heide to senior wide receiver Adam Anderson on the ensuing Jackrabbit possession put them in the lead for the first time in the game, but a failed two-point conversion left SDSU at 11 points. A Redbird field goal at the end of the first half sent the game to halftime with SDSU holding an 11-10 lead.

SDSU wasted no time adding to their lead in the second half. On their first drive of the half, Strong found the end zone for his eighth rushing touchdown of the year to cap a 56-yard drive and extend the lead to eight points.

The Redbirds responded with a field goal after their 69-yard drive stalled in the red zone.

That’s when things took a turn for the Jackrabbits.

A trio of turnovers allowed ISU to take a lead that it would never relinquish.

Heide’s lone interception led to a field goal to cut the lead to 18-16, and the ensuing kickoff return was fumbled away by redshirt freshman Jadon Janke.

This time, the Redbirds were able to finish the drive thanks to an offsides penalty on SDSU after what appeared to be a third-down stop. James Robinson found the end zone one play later, and ISU converted the two-point conversion to take a 24-18 lead.

A Heide fumble on the next drive was the Jacks’ third straight turnover, and the Redbirds turned it into a field goal.

The Jacks put a solid drive together in response but were forced to settle for a field goal after a pair of ISU sacks. Frahm’s attempt sailed wide left, leaving the ISU lead at nine with only 4:15 remaining and all but ending SDSU’s hopes for a rally.

The Redbirds picked up enough first downs on their next drive to run out the clock.

The loss is the second in the past three games for the Jacks and puts them in danger of falling out of contention for a first-round bye in the playoffs. SDSU knows that the only thing it can do is look to the future and try to finish the season with a pair of wins.

“It’s really frustrating because we prepare really hard for this,” said junior linebacker Seven Wilson. “Everyone is just so committed, it’s just devastating that we didn’t come out with it. But you just have to take it like a man and go back to the drawing board on Monday.”

The Jackrabbits get back in action at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16, at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium when they host No. 7 Northern Iowa.