No. 5 SDSU upset by USD in regular season finale

Jakob King and Landon Dierks

For the first time in nearly two decades, South Dakota is a red state.

With a playoff seed and first-round bye in sight, No. 5 South Dakota State was stunned 24-21 by rival South Dakota Saturday at the DakotaDome — USD’s first win in the series since 2000.

One week after dominating then-No. 5 Northern Iowa to get back in contention for a top-eight seed, all SDSU (8-4, 5-3 MVFC) had to do was defeat USD (5-7, 4-4 MVFC) to lock up its fourth consecutive first-round bye in the Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs.

That didn’t happen. 

The Jacks lost four fumbles in the game, including two in the fourth quarter, allowing the Coyotes to play spoiler to SDSU’s dreams of hosting a home playoff game after a week of rest over Thanksgiving.

“This is my fourth game I’ve played (against SDSU), every loss just kind of adds up,” said Coyote senior defensive lineman Darin Greenfield. “I could tell this week that the seniors would lead the charge. All week we were saying, ‘This is the year we’re going to beat them.’ I’m done playing football here, but this is the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Despite gaining 498 total yards, the Jacks were unable to consistently finish drives, and junior receiver Cade Johnson pointed to the turnovers as the deciding factor.

“Four turnovers, no question that cost us the game,” Johnson said. “Our defense, they’ve been showing up all year. We need to have better ball security.”

The sloppy offensive play led SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier to say that his team didn’t deserve to leave Vermillion with a win, despite outgaining the Coyotes by over 100 yards.

“I was thinking, towards the end of the game, if we’d made a run and won that football game, it would not have been deserved by playing like we did,” Stiegelmeier said. “… Four fumbles are unacceptable.”

SDSU jumped ahead early by taking its opening drive for a touchdown. A 54-yard Johnson reception set up a two-yard Keaton Heide touchdown pass to senior tight end Kal Hart to go up 7-0.

After a USD three-and-out, the Coyotes were able to recover a fumble by SDSU punt returner Jaxon Janke, but SDSU linebacker Logan Backhaus intercepted an Austin Simmons pass three plays later to preserve the early advantage.

Later in the first quarter, though, Simmons, USD’s senior quarterback, engineered a 39-yard drive that ended with a field goal to cut the lead to 7-3.

Strong defense from both teams consumed much of the second quarter, but it was USD’s defense that made a play to seize momentum.

Janke caught a short pass from Heide, but after a hard hit, he dropped the ball and fumbled. The Coyotes recovered and took over from the SDSU 34-yard line with less than three minutes remaining in the half. 

This time, USD capitalized on the takeaway.

Simmons led the Coyotes down the short field, and found tight end Brett Samson for a one-yard score on fourth-and-goal with eight seconds left in the first half to give USD a 10-7 lead.

Despite the lack of scoring, both offenses did have their share of big plays in the first half, combining for 399 total yards.

In the second half, those big plays started leading to points.

The Jackrabbits came out of the locker room strong as Mikey Daniel ran untouched for a 27-yard touchdown to regain the lead for SDSU just over three minutes into the second half.

But USD didn’t flinch and immediately responded with a 2:10 drive highlighted by a 44-yard reception by receiver Kody Case and punctuated by a two-yard Simmons touchdown run to reclaim the lead at 17-14.

The Coyotes weren’t done there.

Simmons went 4-of-4 for 68 yards on the next drive, including another long completion to Case and a 21-yard scoring connection with Samson, giving the Coyotes a two-score lead.

Despite the 24-14 second-half deficit, the Jacks seemed determined to get back in the game. An eight-yard touchdown catch by senior fullback Luke Sellers early in the fourth quarter brought SDSU to within a field goal with more than 13 minutes remaining in the contest, but the comeback never came to be.

With SDSU driving and threatening to retake the lead, Heide lost the Jacks’ third fumble of the game, and the score remained 24-21 with under seven minutes to play. 

The Jackrabbits were given one final shot to tie or win the game. They took the ball back at their own six-yard line with 1:02 remaining, but their last-ditch effort was not enough. They fumbled again, and Simmons just had to kneel down to seal the victory for USD.

“Any time you beat good teams, it’s a good thing,” said USD head coach Bob Nielson. “… We haven’t beaten South Dakota State for a long time. I think it’s really important for our fans. I think it’s one of those things that will give us momentum heading into the offseason. There’s no better way to do that than in a rivalry game at the end of the year.”

Now, SDSU must sit and wait to see where its placed in the bracket.

A win would’ve likely allowed the Jacks to enjoy a week off and watch the first-round games from home over Thanksgiving. The loss places their fate in the hands of the FCS Playoff Committee, which will reveal the playoff bracket at 11:30 a.m. Nov. 24 on ESPNU.

“The rivalry game is important, but a loss is a loss. Now we just have to refocus our effort,” Backhaus said. “After the game coach Stiegelmeier was saying we’ve got to move on, games over, nothing we can do to change that. We still have something to play for. We just made our path a little tougher, but we just have to refocus tomorrow.”