SDSU’s hopes die in Fargo

Saturday’s FCS Playoff contest in the Fargodome saw some dreams shatter and others come true as the NDSU Bison overcame the SDSU Jackrabbits in the final minute, winning 27-24.

For the Bison the game was a chance to pursue their fourth straight national championship, this time with a new coach and a new quarterback.

On the other side of things was a group of SDSU seniors who had never beaten the Bison, nor had they advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs.

Saturday’s game in Fargo gave the Jacks a chance to accomplish both and to place Zach Zenner in the record books as, in terms of career rushing yards, the greatest running back ever to play at the FCS level. But while Zenner did become the first back to eclipse 2,000 yards in three consecutive seasons in FCS history, the rest of the benchmarks were not to be as Zenner came up 12 yards shy of the career rushing record and his team could not pull out the win.

Still, Zenner and Austin Sumner will leave SDSU owning all of the major school records at their positions and their senior class will graduate having led the Jackrabbits to historic success, making the playoffs three straight years and earning a playoff win on each occasion.

“They’re the winningest class at South Dakota State,” said SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier. “There’s going to be three doctors in the group. We’ve got a guy who has rushed for a lot of yards. We’ve got a record holder at quarterback. Jason Schneider is going to be a pharmacist and he’s a great wide receiver. They’re great leaders, and the power of a football team is in the spirit and the heart … and these guys had, in my tenure, the greatest effect on the spirit of our football team.”

The Bison jumped on the scoreboard first in the game, scoring touchdowns on two of their first three possessions to go up 14-0, but the Jackrabbits had no intention of letting the game get away from them.

Behind the legs of Zenner, an 80-yard Je Ryan Butler punt return, timely penalties on the Bison and defensive stops, SDSU took control of the game in the second quarter, scoring two touchdowns of their own to tie the game going into halftime.

The Jackrabbits then continued their momentum into the third quarter, stopping the Bison on their opening drive and then marching the field for a field goal on a drive aided by a third down shovel pass to Brady Mengarelli who weaved through defenders for the first to get the drive going.

Stiegelmeier and company also caught NDSU off guard by unleashing Zenner in the wildcat formation on numerous occasions throughout the game.

“We prepped for it the first time we played them, didn’t see it and give those guys credit,” said NDSU head coach Chris Klieman. “We did not prep for that phase of their game because we hadn’t seen it other than in the red zone and on the goal line.”

Having watched the Jackrabbits score 17 straight to take the lead, the Bison then decided that it was their turn to counter as Adam Keller converted field goals on back to back possessions to give NDSU lead early in the fourth quarter.

That lead would prove short-lived though as Sumner and company mounted one last scoring drive highlighted by Zenner’s rush for a first down out of the wildcat on fourth and three on the Bison 32.

“He was not going to be denied is I think the cliché people use,” Stiegelmeier said. “… We were right on the edge of Justin’s [Syrovatka] range. We just felt that the way we had got the ball down there with the energy we had, we thought we could get the first down. … I’ve got faith in our football team.”

SDSU capped off the drive when Sumner hit Jake Wieneke for a three-yard touchdown off a play action fake. Syrovatka’s extra point made it 24-20.

“I thought we had it,” Zenner said. “I thought it was a lock to be honest. I had total confidence that our defense would get a stop and then we were going to knee it three times and that would have been it.”

Linebacker T.J. Lally echoed Zenner’s confidence.

“Defensively we thought we had a good mindset going into that last drive,” Lally said. “And we executed well on a number of plays, but just one or two [plays] – that’s the difference in the game. … We weren’t overconfident or anything. We knew the gravity of the situation we were in.”

All SDSU needed was a defensive stop or a turnover to seal the deal, but NDSU’s offense stepped onto the field and reminded all those watching and following why they are the three-time defending national champions as they coolly marched down the field until Carson Wentz was able to find R.J. Urzendowski in the end zone for the go-ahead score with 54 seconds left.

“It sounds cheesy, but it’s kind of something you dream off,” Wentz said about being able to lead his team on a game winning drive.

Sumner and company then took the field for the last time, but it proved to be a bitter ending as Sumner’s first pass carried into the waiting hands of Tre Dempsey who jumped Schneider’s route.

“I think Coach Stig and I both knew that it was going to come down to the last possession,” Klieman said. “I have so much respect for SDSU and Coach Stiegelmeier and his ball club. They’re a great football team, and we talked – it was a fifty-fifty game and we made a couple huge plays at the end.”

The Jackrabbits finish their season with a 9-5 record, after having won four straight games coming into Saturday’s game and nearly pulling off the win to play on.

“This team went down swinging,” Sumner said.