With 7:59 to go in Saturday’s monster FCS showdown between #2 South Dakota State and #6 Missouri State, Jacks quarterback Mark Gronowski beautifully executed a play action pass to Zach Heins over the middle for touchdown. The late score put SDSU back on top after the Bears had rallied to tie just moments earlier. It was a lead that South Dakota State would not relinquish, thanks to lights out play by their defense down the stretch. For all the (well-deserved) hype that’s been surrounding MSU this year, the Jackrabbits came in and proved that they’re a Top 3 team for a reason
It wasn’t the prettiest of starts for John Stiegelmeier’s team in Springfield, though. After an opening drive that got well within Missouri State territory, Jacks kicker Hunter Dustman missed a 50-yard field goal try. The defense rose to the occasion, however, and forced the high-octane MSU offense to punt.
On their second possession, SDSU made the most of it. Starting at their own 8-yard line, the Jackrabbits marched 92 yards in 10 plays. Jadon Janke caught a short three-yard pass from Gronowski and put the Jacks up 7-0.
From there the defenses would take over. For the remainder of the first half, both squads combined for six punts and those seven points were the only ones on the board at the break. For all the defensive success, South Dakota State went into the locker room knowing they left six points out there. Dustman’s tough day got worse as he missed two more field goal attempts in the opening 30 minutes.
Missouri State’s offense, which had been uncharacteristically quiet up to this point, still couldn’t get any traction going in the third. On their first drive, Jason Shelley and company moved the ball into the red zone but safety Colby Hunter thwarted the procession when he intercepted an errant throw from Shelley. Hunter sprinted 70 yards the other way to add insult to injury.
From there, the offense were able to get their second touchdown of the afternoon. This time it was Jaxon Janke who got the score, a 13-yard reception to give Gronowski his second TD.
It was about then that the Bears offense finally woke up. Running back Jacardia Wright and Shelley put the work on their shoulders and wove their way down the field. Wright capped the drive with a 15-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit back to seven.
After an SDSU punt, Missouri State did it again to tie things up but this time it only took one play. Shelley hit Raylen Sharpe who took it 67 yards for the electrifying score. Now tied at 14 all, the crowd was back in it and it was a whole new game.
If momentum wasn’t completely on Missouri State’s side yet, it soon would be. Late in the third quarter, Gronowski fumbled and it was recovered by Kevin Ellis. As the fourth began, MSU was in prime position to take their first lead of the afternoon.
The Jacks, though, were the ones who buckled down. The defense forced yet another punt and with his second chance, Gronowski redeemed himself. The aforementioned touchdown to Heins gave them a 21-14 advantage.
Later in the final frame, when everyone thought the Jackrabbits would run to eat clock, Gronowski instead opted for the air and again looked the way of Jadon Janke. He broke a tackle and jolted down the sideline for a 40-yard touchdown that put a big exclaimation point on the day.
Credit needs to go to the SDSU defense that held the usually-potent Bears offense to just 14 points and 13 first downs. Shelley struggled, tossing just one touchdown and two interceptions on the day. He threw for 185 yards.
On the other side, Gronowski finished with four touchdowns passing, no picks and 319 yards. The Janke brothers lit it up with a combined 229 yards and three touchdowns on 15 catches. Even running back Isaiah Davis had a solid day with 83 yards.
In the big picture, this win is huge for South Dakota State. The Jacks took down one of their toughest MVC opponents and are 1-0 in conference play. If it should come down to a tie-breaker scenario for a playoff spot, seed, etc. down the line the Jackrabbits now hold it over the Bears.
For Missouri State, this loss is the second straight after the team fell to Arkansas in a gallant effort last week. They’ll now try to regroup as they look ahead to a road contest against North Dakota next week.
South Dakota State will face Western Illinois next Saturday.