BY ROCK HOFFMAN
College Football Editor
Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, who led the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl wins in the 1970’s, said, “losing has nothing to do with geography.”
In an NCAA FCS quarterfinal playoff game on Goodreau Field at Villanova Stadium, the unseeded South Dakota State Jackrabbits proved the legendary coach was right as they defeated the host Villanova Wildcats 35-21. The Jacks (10-3) were on the road for the second week in a row after winning an opening-round game at home. They won at Sacramento State last week, went home to start finals, got out of Sioux Falls ahead of a snowstorm that closed the airport, and came east to play the fifth-seeded Wildcats (10-3).
“It becomes more of a grind, the more we talk about it,” said Jackrabbits’ head coach John Stiegelmeier. “This is a really special group of guys so we embraced it. We’re excited to be one of the four teams left so if I hear anything thing negative, I can say, ‘what is the alternative.’”
Now, Villanova is dealing with that alternative. They had a 21-14 lead at halftime but were shut out in the second half as the Jacks adjusted defensively and the Wildcats were unable to stop SDSU’s ground game.
Early in the game, the Jackrabbits lost running back Pierre Strong, who finished fifth in voting for the Walter Payton Award, with a nation’s best 1,575 yards with 17 touchdowns but they still had Isaiah Davis, who rushed for 325 yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries in their two previous playoff games. They also have a veteran offensive line that averages 304 pounds and a pair of bookend tight ends that go 6-7, 250, and 6-5, 255 so they didn't miss a beat.
“The top one or two, for sure,” said Villanova linebacker Forrest Rhyne when asked to rank the Jacks offensive line to others he’s played against. “To be able to lose their starting back and still have a good back come in but it’s always more of the offensive line than people give credit. The offensive line is very good and not necessarily on an individual basis. They work together so well they move as a nucleus.”
Behind that line of Aron Johnson, Mason McCormick, Wes Genant, Eddie Miller, and Garrett Greenfield plus tight ends Zach Heins and Tucker Kraft, the Jacks ran for 266 yards on 45 carries. Davis gained 174 yards and scored three touchdowns.
"It's not me," said Davis, "They did a great job upfront, the scheme was working, that's what we stayed with and that's why I succeeded, because of them."
The Jackrabbits took advantage of a short field to get on the scoreboard first. After their initial series of the game, they buried the Wildcats at the two-yard line when Dalys Beanum downed Hunter Dustman’s punt there. The ‘Cats went three-and-out and South Dakota State was set up at their 46-yard line. Two plays after he converted a fourth-and-one at the Villanova 45 with a five-yard run, Davis raced 24 yards for the score.
The Wildcats would answer when Rayjoun Pringle beat his man and Dan Smith found him for a 36-yard touchdown. Pringle was the go-to guy on the drive, he had two additional catches for 28 yards and a 14-yard run.
On the next series, the nation’s ninth-best rushing offense ran it down the throat of the tenth-best rushing defense in the country. The Jacks matriculated the ball down the field by gaining 55 yards on 11 carries which included converting a third-and-14 with a 17-yard run by Davis. However, it was a 10-yard pass from Chris Oladokun to Jaxon Janke that got the ball over the goal line.
Pringle had another big catch – for 37 yards – to go over 100 yards receiving for the half and it helped the 'Cats tie it again as Smith scrambled in from the 7 to make at 14 all.
On the ensuing possession, the Wildcats defense held and forced a punt which, thanks to the wind, only went 21 yards. It allowed ‘Nova to take the lead in the final minute of the first half. Because of a blown coverage, Jaaron Hayek was all alone deep down the right sideline, Smith didn’t miss him and Hayek fought his way in for a 55-yard touchdown catch.
The third quarter was rough for Villanova, they found moving the ball difficult as the Jacks moved from man-to-man to a zone defense and dropped eight into coverage.
In the first series, they got a penalty before they even snapped the ball for the first time in the half. Ultimately, they would punt and SDSU would tie the score on a two-yard run by Davis.
Their next possession started at their own 10 and only a sensational throw and catch by Smith to Qadir Ismail prevented the Wildcats from punting in the shadow of their goalpost. Unfortunately, when they did punt it only went ten yards, again the wind played a factor.
Defensively, Villanova played the next series missing members of their secondary because of injuries and it showed as Janke was able to get free on a deep ball from Oladokun and the result was a 38-yard touchdown.
Davis would add another two-yard scoring run after Villanova turned it over on downs at the Jacks’ 34 early in the fourth quarter.
The Wildcats' final possessions ended on turnovers and so ended their season.
“When you have a finish like this it stings,” said Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante, who noted the Wildcats have as many as 32 players who could've played their final college game. "I’m going to miss a lot of these guys. As of right now, we’re going to enjoy the success these guys have had.”
For the Jackrabbits, they move on to the semifinals where they will be on the road again, against the eight-seed, Montana State.
“We’re some road warrior for sure,” said Oladukun.
Email Rock Hoffman at email@example.com