Putting the pigskin away


SDSU Football

AUSTIN HAMM Sports Editor

Football falls in first round of playoffs

Football season in South Dakota has finally come to a close. The Jackrabbits traveled for the first round of the Football Championship Series Playoffs, surprisingly enough, and fell 24-17 against the Montana Grizzlies. Montana jumped out to a 24-0 lead before the Jacks mounted a rally in the second half by scoring 17 straight points, but they would not be able to get over the hump.

“I wanted so badly to be on the other end of a comeback out here,” SDSU Head Coach John Stiegelmeier said. “Credit to coach (Bob) Stitt. Their quarterback’s a really good player. I’m really proud of our team to comeback the way we did, but we did fall short and it hurts.”

The loss ensures that the Jacks will not be getting a second crack at North Dakota State this season. Instead, the Grizzlies, who are one of NDSU’s losses this year, will be trying to pull the sweep on the Bison in the Fargodome. The Jacks now sport a 3-5 record in the FCS Playoffs since they became eligible for the Division I postseason.

Taryn Christion got the start at quarterback for the Jacks and played the whole game, with an apparent injury to Zach Lujan preventing the Jacks from using the two-quarterback system that had been in play for the Jacks most of the year. Christion struggled early, finishing 18-for-43 passing for 230 yards and one touchdown. He also led SDSU in rushing with 54 yards and one touchdown on 19 carries.

Jake Wieneke ended the season with a six-catch, 128-yard performance. His 72 catches for the year ranks fourth in school history, while his 1,472 yards is a new career high, but keeps him in second in the SDSU books.

Defensively, senior linebacker T.J. Lally led the Jacks with 14 tackles in his final game for SDSU as the Jackrabbit defense shut down a potent Montana offense for a good portion of the second half.

“We were showing them some different looks and keeping them on their toes a bit,” Lally said of the second half improvement.

On the other side, Brady Gustafson threw for 295 yards and a pair of scores while John Nguyen rushed for 107 yards and a touchdown. Tyrone Holmes led the Griz defense with five tackles and three sacks.

The 2015 SDSU football season felt like a rebuild heading in. With offensive players like Austin Sumner, Jason Schneider and Zach Zenner headed down the road; there were questions about how the Jacks running game would hold up, who would emerge as the second wideout threat to complement Wieneke and if Lujan would be up to the challenge as a full-time starter after some ups and downs filling in for an injured Sumner in 2014.

But when the year opened with a win at Kansas, the Jacks’ first over a Football Bowl Series opponent, the expectations shifted. A couple more big performances from Lujan and Wieneke had Jack’s fans dreaming big.

Things came back to earth a bit after a home loss to NDSU, followed by an injury to Lujan that pulled the redshirt off Christion. But despite some struggles, Christion played well, and both quarterbacks performed admirably when there was somewhat of a flux in regards to who the starter was.

“We lost a ton of great players last year. In the NFL, record holder, four-year starters, phenomenal players. Other than our staff and the guys in the locker room, not many people gave us a chance to do what we did,” Stiegelmeier said. “But we did it, and we did it because of guys like the players that just walked out of this room. They were phenomenal leaders.”

Though 2015 ended with a bit of disappointment, there is plenty to look forward to next year for the Jacks. With Lujan, Wienke and most of the backfield returning, along with Christion ready to compete for the full-time starting job, the future is a lot brighter for Jackrabbit football than many might have thought at this point.