Jacks beat UND in regular season finale

Skyler Jackson, Sports Editor (He/Him)

The South Dakota State Jackrabbits needed a win Saturday to secure a spot in the FCS playoffs for the tenth consecutive year.

The lowest attendance in Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium this season (8,135) saw the No. 12 Jackrabbits hold off North Dakota 24-21 thanks to a Malik Lofton interception at the SDSU 12 yard line to seal the victory.

SDSU finishes its regular season with an 8-3 overall record, including 5-3 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. With the win, the Jacks all but guaranteed themselves a spot in the 24-team playoff field.

The playoffs are set to begin next week, but for the Jacks, the playoffs started Saturday.

“The playoffs did start today for us,” said quarterback Chris Oladokun. “It was a 1-0 mentality. It’s a 1-0 mentality every week, but this was definitely a playoff game for us. Every game in the Missouri Valley is tough, so I’m just really proud of our guys.”

The Jackrabbits were also coming off a shocking defeat, having lost to South Dakota on a Hail Mary touchdown pass a week ago. So, a win in the regular-season finale would build momentum heading into the postseason.

“There’s no doubt that a win and being in the playoffs will build confidence,” said coach John Stiegelmeier. “I think there’s a unique pressure on our players because the expectation is to get to the playoffs, especially after the spring season.”

But in the first quarter, there was low energy in Dykhouse Stadium, as neither team could generate much offense early. After going scoreless through the first 15 minutes, the Jackrabbits got the spark they needed with the return of Isaiah Davis.

After being out for two and a half months, Davis got the green light. Davis carried the ball 22 yards on his first play, and it seemed to give SDSU’s offense the jumpstart it needed.

“I heard the crowd cheering when they saw him run out there,” Oladokun said. “Then he breaks for 22 yards on his first run back in eight or nine weeks. I was really proud of seeing him stay the course throughout his rehab to get back and be with the guys.”

SDSU capped off that drive when Oladokun hit Jadon Janke for a 17-yard touchdown early in the second quarter.

The Fighting Hawks responded with their own drive, a 14 play, 79-yard drive that ended with a 16-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Schuster to Garett Maag.

The Jacks then took a 14-7 lead with 17 seconds left in the first half when Oladokun hit Tucker Kraft for a 23-yard touchdown.

UND again tied the game in the third quarter on a 1-yard touchdown run from Quincy Vaughan. Oladokun later hit Jaxon Janke off a deflection for a 23-yard touchdown, and SDSU regained the lead. UND responded with an Otis Weah 7-yard touchdown but would not score again.

With 5:23 left in the game, Cole Frahm hit a 38-yard field goal, eventually proving to be the clinching score, and SDSU held on for the win.

Oladokun was 19-26 for 239 yards and three touchdowns. Pierre Strong Jr. was held under 100 yards for just the third time this season. He had 72 yards rushing on 12 attempts. Davis finished with nine carries for 64 yards in his return. On defense, Adam Bock led with 12 tackles. Isaiah Stalbird added eight, including a tackle for loss.

The Fighting Hawks offense was able to sustain drives that kept them in the game. They were successful on 13 of 19 third-down tries. Schuster finished 22-37 for 218 yards. Otis Weah led the team in rushing with 63 yards on 16 carries.

The Jacks now await their spot in the FCS playoffs. They could potentially get a top-eight seed, which means a first-round bye and a guaranteed home game. The selection show is Sunday at 11:30 a.m. and can be watched on ESPNU. The Fighting Hawks (5-6, 3-5) look ahead to next season.