Turnovers key in Jacks’ season-ending defeat

Jakob King, Sports Reporter

A disappointing finish to the regular season was quickly forgotten when South Dakota State received the No. 7 seed and a first-round bye in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

The program hoped to use the excitement from that announcement and an extra week to get healthy to make a run in the playoffs.

Those hopes came crashing down in the form of a 13-10 loss to Missouri Valley Football Conference rival Northern Iowa Saturday at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.

The defeat sends the Panthers (10-4) on to the next round and ensures that the Jackrabbits (8-5) will begin their offseason earlier than they would have liked.

On a cold, windy day, SDSU couldn’t get its offense off the ground. The Jacks gained just 220 total yards and turned the ball over three times. Running backs Mikey Daniel and C.J. Wilson combined for only 63 yards rushing, and only two of their 11 drives created points.

“We had a tough time holding on to the ball. … We beat ourselves, that’s what it comes down to,” said senior receiver Adam Anderson.

As it has all season, the SDSU defense played exceptionally. They sacked Northern Iowa quarterback Will McElvain five times and allowed less than four yards per play.

In the end, it didn’t matter.

Northern Iowa made just a few more plays than the Jackrabbits down the stretch, earning the Panthers the right to face No. 2 James Madison next weekend in the national quarterfinals.

For the second consecutive game, the Jackrabbits offense got off to a fast start. They followed up a Cade Johnson 43-yard return on the opening kickoff with a 50-yard touchdown drive capped by a perfect throw by Keaton Heide to Adam Anderson in the back of the end zone to take an early lead.

After adding a field goal on their second drive, the Jacks spent the rest of the first half turning the ball over to the Panthers, only to watch their defense bail them out on more than one occasion.

SDSU committed three consecutive turnovers in the second quarter, but the defense minimized the damage by holding UNI to three points off the Jacks’ miscues. They sacked McElvain four times in the first half and intercepted him once while holding UNI to 54 total yards.

But the Panther offense would only be held down for so long.

They opened the first half with a 75-yard touchdown drive that tied the game at 10-10. In response, the Jackrabbits drove to UNI’s 28-yard line but a go-ahead field goal attempt was blocked and the game remained tied. 

After that short spurt of offense, the defenses once again took over the game.

The Panthers took the ball with 7:58 remaining and went on the most pivotal drive of the game. 

It began with a 31-yard run by McElvain to bring the Panthers to midfield. Four plays later, UNI was faced with fourth-and-2 and a big decision.

They gambled, and it paid off.

Running back Trevor Allen gained two yards and moved the chains. Three plays later, McElvain found Suni Lane for a 31-yard completion to set the Panthers up at the 5-yard line. 

“We’re playing against a great football team, and when you get in that situation you have to make those plays,” said UNI head coach Mark Farley. “On that fourth-and-2, you have to rely on your offense. … I believed that was going to be our shot to win the game.”

The Jackrabbits defense held tough and forced the Panthers to kick a short field goal, which gave the visitors their first lead of the game at 13-10. The drive lasted 5:48 and left the Jackrabbits with only 2:05 remaining and no timeouts to mount a response.

They gained just eight yards in eight plays and turned the ball over on downs, which put an end to the game and the Jackrabbits’ season.

“Right now it’s the worst feeling in the world,” said senior defensive end Ryan Earith, who recorded 2.5 sacks on the afternoon. “Everybody I’ve met here, relationships I’ve built, I love every one of them. This really hurts.”

For a team that started the season ranked No. 3 in the country, nearly upset Minnesota in the season-opener and at one point had a 6-1 record, this is not how the Jackrabbits envisioned their season coming to an end — losing at home to a team they’d beaten by 31 in Brookings less than a month ago.

Some programs are happy just to make the playoffs, but that’s not the case for SDSU’s program.

“It’s not a successful season,” said head coach John Stiegelmeier. “We had very lofty goals. When you get to the playoffs and you’re looking 15 seniors in the eyes, we fell short.”