Run away victory, SDSU win means date with No. 3 E. Wash.

The Jackrabbits got off to a rocky start but turned things around quickly and ceased a 26-7 victory in the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome topping off the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks to proceed to the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

It was a defensive battle in the first quarter as both teams struggled offensively. No. 13 ranked SDSU was forced to punt in their first four possessions of the game leading into the second quarter. SDSU improves to 9-4 on the season while NAU finishes at 9-3.

“I am proud of our football team,” head coach John Stiegelmeier said. “I think every phase of our team played well … [I] look forward to another week at least.”

No. 8 Northern Arizona that played without their head coach Jerome Souers due to complications from a recent surgery, scored first in the second quarter on a Zach Bauman 6-yard touchdown run. The score was sparked after a 36-yard reception from Dejzon Walker to the SDSU 37 yard line.

Things were looking up for Northern Arizona after a Zach Zenner fumble at the Lumberjack 1 yard line, to regain possession of the ball. NAU then marched 68 yards down to the SDSU 12 yard line. Kyren Poe tried to hit a wide receiver in a crossing pattern in the middle of the field on third and goal only to have the ball get deflected off his receivers hands and into the hands of SDSU’s Jack Sherlock for an interception. Sophomore quarterback Poe was benched for junior quarterback Chase Cartwright and didn’t appear again until late in the fourth quarter.

“To be able to come away with that pick in that situation and save us from going down two scores was huge,” Lally said. “That was just us digging deep as a unit and doing our jobs when we’re tired.”

On the first play of the drive after getting the ball back, Zenner redeemed himself, fumbling on the previous drive by going 87 yards for a touchdown notching up the game at seven points apiece going into halftime.

“I was mad at myself,” Zenner said. “For me to fumble on the one yard line it was very frustrating … I have a lot of respect for this defense in general because they are gonna do what they’re gonna do and you just gotta line up and beat them.”

Ethan Sawyer had an excellent day for the Jackrabbits pinning NAU inside the 24 times of his seven punts. Sawyer had pinned the Lumberjacks at the 2 yard line ultimately resulting in a safety. Putting SDSU on top 9-7 after Bauman was tackled out of the backside of the end zone by SDSU linebacker T.J. Lally. 

“I thought he [Sawyer] did an unbelievable job kicking the ball,” Stiegelmeier said. “But again, it doesn’t matter who you are, when you’re on the field you have an impact.”

Following the safety, Arizona native Je Ryan Butler (Tempe) busted out for a stellar 38-yard return to the Northern Arizona 39 yard line, setting SDSU up for yet another score. Zenner ran with the ball two times and scored on a 34-yard run with his second carry of the drive and placing the Jacks on top with a comfortable lead over NAU of 16-7.

Just four minutes into the fourth quarter, despite being on the NAU 3 yard line, the Jacks settled for a Justin Syrovatka field goal boosting their lead to 12 points. Butler also recorded two interceptions in the contest. Doug Peete and Marshall Peugh both earned 1.5 sacks as Lally, Chase Douglas, and Cole Langer led the SDSU defense with six tackles each.

“When you’re on the football field every play is a chance to make a difference,” Stiegelmeier said. “You [players] have to play literally like it’s your last play and our guys did that today.”

The SDSU defense was stifling and full of energy throughout the game after the first quarter interception that turned the tides in the Jackrabbits’ favor. The Lumberjacks only picked up one third down conversion of their 14 attempts, a credit to SDSU’s defense.

“I think we wore them down,” Peugh said. “Once our offense started getting on the board a lot then we knew they were going to have to pass to comeback, so that helped.”

Reggie Gandy saw some late game action midway through the fourth quarter to relieve Zenner. Gandy claimed a seven-yard touchdown sealing the victory over NAU.

Zenner finished the game with 249 yards on 30 carries. For the 12th time this season, he rushed for over 100 yards and has gone over 200 yards for the second time in three playoff games.

The Jackrabbits recorded over 343 yards on the ground and Austin Sumner had one of the worst performances of his career completing 4 of 15 passes for 56 yards. Jason Schneider was held to a season low of one reception.

SDSU will play No. 3 ranked Big Sky Conference champion Eastern Washington Dec. 7 in Cheney, Wash. Kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m. Central Time. The game will also air on ESPN3.