Jacks beat Villanova, advance to FCS semifinals


Mikey Reeves

Submitted photo

Skyler Jackson, Sports Editor (He/Him)

For the fourth time in program history, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits advance to the final four of the FCS playoffs.

After trailing at the half, the Jackrabbits (11-3) scored 21 unanswered points in the second half to beat the fifth-seeded Villanova Wildcats (10-3) 35-21 Saturday in Villanova, Pennsylvania.

And SDSU’s march to a national title continues, as they now face the winner of Montana State and Sam Houston.

“We played an unbelievable second half,” said SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier. “I keep saying how proud I am of these guys and to be able to come out and put the first half behind them and do that on the road. My heart is smiling.”

The Jackrabbits got on the board first midway through the first quarter with a 24-yard touchdown run from Isaiah Davis. The Wildcats responded on their next drive when quarterback Daniel Smith hit Rayjoun Pringle for a 36-yard touchdown.

The back-and-forth first half continued on SDSU’s next offensive possession, a drive that ended with a quarterback Chris Oladokun 10-yard touchdown pass to Jaxon Janke.

The Wildcats again responded with back-to-back scoring drives to close out the first half. They tied the game when Smith scored a rushing touchdown from seven yards out. Then Smith hit Jaaron Hayek for a 56-yard score to give the Wildcats a 21-14 halftime lead.

From then on, it was all Jackrabbits.

“This team is resilient,” said linebacker Logan Backhaus. “We went into halftime, and no one was upset. We knew what we had to do to come out in the second half.”

In the third quarter, a 2-yard touchdown run from Davis tied the game, then, Oladokun connected with Jaxon Janke for his second touchdown catch of the game, a 38-yard score.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Davis scored his third touchdown of the day, another 2-yard score, to put the finishing touches on a dominant second-half performance from SDSU.

“I think our guys were playing with confidence,” Stiegelmeier said. “We just need to keep the focus the whole time. I thought our defense really made some crucial plays in the second half, and then our running game was special against a really good run defense.”

The Jackrabbit defense then forced two late turnovers to keep the Wildcats from forcing a comeback. A Michael Griffin interception, then a Dalys Beanum forced fumble recovered by Caleb Sanders sealed the win for the Jackrabbits.

But SDSU’s win came mostly without their all-American running back. Pierre Strong Jr. was sidelined in the first quarter due to an undisclosed injury. His status is to be determined.

Without Strong in the backfield, Davis was the featured back for the rest of the game. He carried the ball 25 times for 174 yards. Amar Johnson added 14 carries for 64 yards in Strong’s absence.

Oladokun finished 11-19 for 152 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. Jaxon Janke caught the ball six times for 117 yards.

On defense, Adam Bock led with seven tackles. Backhaus, Griffin and Cale Reeder had six. Two of Reeder’s six tackles were for loss. The defense totaled six tackles for loss.

Smith finished 17-26 for 271 yards and two touchdowns for the Villanova offense. Pringle had five receptions for 119 yards. The Wildcats totaled 121 yards on the ground. On defense, Forrest Rhyne had 21 total tackles.

The Jackrabbits held the edge in total yardage 418 to 378.

Up next for Villanova, an impressive season ends in the FCS quarterfinals for the Colonial Athletic Association conference champions. The Jackrabbits are now one win away from their second appearance in the FCS title game in just over six months. They will have to play at either Montana State or Sam Houston to make it back to Frisco, Texas.