Jackrabbits survive Holy Cross; face Montana State in FCS semifinals


Dave Eggen/Inertia

South Dakota State wide receiver Jaxon Janke catches a pass in a FCS playoff game at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium Saturday against Holy Cross Dec. 10.

Marshall Minihan, Sports Reporter

South Dakota State survived an upset bid and pulled away late to beat Holy Cross 42-21 at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium to move on to the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals against Montana State.

6,549 fans witnessed the top-seeded Jackrabbits earn their 12th consecutive win against the now 12-1 Holy Cross Crusaders in a brisk 31 degrees.

After a missed 42-yard field goal from Hunter Dustman, the Crusaders marched down the field to score in just four plays, thanks to a 56-yard touchdown run from quarterback Matthew Sluka. The quarterback ran all over SDSU’s defense, putting up a career-high 213 yards on 26 carries against the nation’s No.1 rush defense

“(Sluka) has got an unbelievable feel for the game,” Jacks coach John Stiegelmeier said. “They didn’t come in here to watch the game. They played a great football game.”

Along with his dominant rushing game, Sluka completed 13 passes for 122 yards and an interception.

After taking the lead 7-0, Holy Cross tried to catch the Jackrabbit special teams off their guard by attempting an onside kick. But luckily for the Jacks, it went out of bounds.

Redeeming himself from the previous drive, Dustman hit a field goal from 29 yards out to put the Jacks on the board.

The next score in the game came from Dustman as well, and it was set up by a 44-yard pass from quarterback Mark Gronowski to Jaxon Janke. Dustman hit the 23-yard attempt to cut the lead to 7-6. Gronowski passed from 177 yards and two touchdowns on the day, completing 12 of his 22 passes.

The Crusaders would score again on the opening drive of the second quarter on a pass, but not from Sluka. After being stopped on third down, Holy Cross quickly lined up and handed the ball off to running back Tyler Purdy, who threw to a wide-open Sean Morris for a 27-yard touchdown, his only reception of the game. The play caught the Jackrabbit defense off guard and put Holy Cross ahead 14-6.

SDSU focused on their running game on their next drive, running the ball six times out of the eight plays before feeding star tailback Isaiah Davis the ball from one yard out for a score. The Jacks successfully converted on a two-point conversion handoff to Davis to put the game at 14-all. He finished with 20 carries, picking up 154 yards and a touchdown.

The next touchdown came with 1:08 left in the first half after linebacker Jason Freeman intercepted a tipped pass from Sluka and took it 37 yards for a touchdown to give the Jacks a 21-14 lead.

Holy Cross would tie up the game in the third quarter after an 11-play drive by a one-yard touchdown run from Peter Oliver. The 6-foot back finished the game with 57 yards on 14 carries and a score.

From there, the Jacks posted a fourth-quarter shutout and scored 21 unanswered points to put the game away.

“When it was crunch time, that’s when we trusted each other the most,” Freeman said. “And it showed when we were able to get that stop and then being able to put up some points on offense.”

Jaxon Janke picked up a touchdown reception in the fourth quarter on a 10-yard pass from Gronowski. The senior caught four passes for 82 yards and a touchdown.

Gronowski put the Jackrabbits up by 14 after he went 18 yards untouched into the endzone for his first rushing touchdown of the game and 10th of the season. He finished with 10 carries for 55 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

The final score for SDSU came with less than a minute left when Gronowski found Jadon Janke for a 21-yard touchdown. Jadon was targeted three times, caught all three passes and put 49 yards on the board along with his touchdown.

Saiveon Williamson led the Jackrabbit defense with nine total tackles, while cornerback Dalys Beanum followed closely with eight. Making his return back from injury, Adam Bock had four tackles while Freeman finished with three.

The Jackrabbits will stay home yet another week as they play the Montana State Bobcats, the team that beat SDSU in the FCS semifinals last year in Bozeman.

“My opinion is that it doesn’t matter who it is,” Jaxon said about next week’s matchup. “We want to win and we are going to do what we can and what we need to do at all costs.”

The game is set to take place Dec. 17 in Brookings at 3:00 p.m.