SDSU defense dominates in win over UNI

Landon Dierks, Sports Editor

In need of a win over a stout Missouri Valley Football Conference foe, No. 8/9 South Dakota State’s defense put together a masterpiece against No. 4/5 Northern Iowa to keep hopes of a first-round playoff bye alive.

“I thought our defense played close to perfect,” said SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier.

The Jackrabbits (8-3, 5-2 MVFC) forced four turnovers, all by redshirt freshman quarterback Will McElvain, in a 38-7 Senior Day win over the Panthers (7-4, 5-2 MVFC) Saturday afternoon at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.

Since both teams were ranked in the top-10, it was a chance for both squads to make their case for a top-eight national seed when playoff brackets are revealed Nov. 24, and the SDSU players knew it.

“The biggest thing for us this week was making a statement, and I think by our performance we did just that,” said SDSU’s true freshman quarterback Keaton Heide, who went 15-of-16 passing for 196 yards and two touchdowns.

UNI coach Mark Farley was short with many of his remarks following his team’s loss, but one thing echoed throughout his press conference.

“We didn’t play good enough,” he said several times.

Miscues for both teams led to a 7-0 halftime score, and it looked as though the two teams would be locked in a defensive battle for the duration of the game, but SDSU’s drive to start the second half was a difference-maker, according to Farley.

“At 7-0 at halftime, man, we were in great shape — absolutely great shape,” Farley said. “We had erred in the punt team, we had erred in so many different ways and the defense shut them down. We had everything we wanted, on the road, at 7-0 — you’re right where you need to be playing a really good football team. The difference in the game was the drive to start the second half. When they drove the field and scored on the first series of the second half, that one hurt.”

To get to that halftime score, the two teams took turns trying to capitalize on the other’s mistakes.

McElvain threw an interception in Jackrabbit territory on the game’s first drive, and SDSU started to move the ball. The drive stalled at the UNI 35-yard line, forcing senior kicker Chase Vinatieri to attempt a 52-yard field goal, which was blocked.

Later in the first quarter, star running back Pierre Strong Jr. had to be helped off the field and was eventually carted to the locker room to deal with a leg injury. He did not return to the game.

Stiegelmeier was optimistic about Strong’s health moving forward, indicating he may return to action this season.

With an increased role due to Strong’s injury, senior Mikey Daniel, a Brookings native playing his final regular-season home game, rushed for 82 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown.

Already without its first-string quarterback, the injury could have hindered SDSU’s offensive production even further. Instead, it was a rallying point.

“Pierre went down and nobody flinched,” Stiegelmeier said. “I feel bad for Pierre, but that is the nature of our program … We had some things go our way, but I’m going to claim we made them go out way.”

That’s when the Jacks got tricky.

Running back Blair Mullholland lined up at quarterback with Heide at wide receiver in SDSU’s version of the wildcat formation, the ‘WildJack’. Mullholland handed the ball to Daniel, who ran to Heide’s side and pitched the quarterback the ball. In the trickery, the Panther secondary lost track of wideout Cade Johnson, who hauled in a Heide pass and took it inside the UNI 5-yard line for a 65-yard gain.

Mikey Daniel found his way into the end zone two plays later to give SDSU a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter.

A second McElvain interception set the Jacks up on the plus side of the 50-yard line, but Heide and company couldn’t capitalize. Despite his quarterback’s struggles, Farley pointed to penalties as the main issue for the Panthers.

“It wasn’t Will [McElvain], it was a multitude of things,” Farley said. “… It was our turnovers and penalties, and the penalties are worse than the turnovers. Without the penalties, those drives continue to score instead of getting in second- and third-and-long that created the throws for tipped passes for intercepts … It goes back to what we did and didn’t do well enough.”

SDSU would get one more good opportunity before the half ended, but Vinatieri missed his second field goal of the day when he pushed a 45-yard attempt wide right, keeping the score at 7-0 heading into the break.

That’s when the drive Farley deemed “the drive of the game” got things rolling for the Jacks.

SDSU marched 73 yards, capped by a 10-yard scoring pass from Heide to Jaxon Janke. It was Heide’s 14th straight completion to start the game, a new Jackrabbit record.

Vinatieri would connect on a 44-yard field goal on the Jacks’ next possession after a 34-yard punt return by Janke set the Jacks up with good field position, but UNI would respond to get back in the game.

McElvain passed for 35 yards and ran for 18 more before Sam Schnee took a handoff 11-yards up the middle to make it 17-7. After another SDSU three-and-out, UNI had a chance to make it a one-score game.

The Jackrabbit defense had other plans.

On the first play of the drive, junior defensive end Tolu Ogunrinde forced a McElvain fumble. Junior cornerback Don Gardner picked up the loose ball and ran it back for a 24-yard touchdown — SDSU’s first scoop-and-score since November 2012.

“That was the backbreaker,” Farley said.

And, all of a sudden, the rout was on.

Another interception once again set up the Jacks in Panther territory, only this time SDSU would get in the endzone. Heide connected with Johnson from 20 yards out to run the score to 31-7.

Kanin Nelson came in at quarterback late and got in on the action, scoring on a 12-yard keeper to bring the game to its final score.

Coming into the afternoon McElvain ranked in the top three in the conference in passing yards and touchdowns before going 12-of-24 for 85 yards and no touchdowns. McElvain’s three interceptions also equaled his season total prior to Saturday.

In the end, it was UNI’s subpar second-half defense and the costly mistakes that stood out to the Panther head coach.

“You gotta be good for four quarters, not two,” Farley said. “This game should’ve been 10-7, 14-7 or something like that because those were two good defenses … We didn’t make the plays.”

Ahead of a showdown with rival South Dakota next week in Vermillion, the Jackrabbits are focused on one thing.

“We just want to make sure we finish strong,” Ogunrinde said. “We owe it to our seniors to finish strong. As long as we do that, we’re going to be good going into the playoffs.