#10 South Dakota State Upset at Western Illinois, Opens FCS Playoffs Saturday at #16 Montana
It was a weekend trip that was more befitting of a Twilight Zone episode than a Missouri Valley Conference football game. And in the end, a shell shocked South Dakota State team had lost far more than just a game.
The Jackrabbits endured an 11-hour weather delay at the Sioux Falls Airport heading to Macomb, Illinois, Friday, then found themselves stuck for an hour behind an accident on I-74 on the way to Western Illinois, Saturday, arriving at Hanson Field just 15 minutes before the scheduled kickoff time of 1:00 PM.
The game was eventually pushed back to 2:30 PM and it was a battle the entire way. On a bitterly cold day, SDSU managed to grab a 10-3 halftime lead, despite not converting on five third down attempts in the first 30 minutes.
While the Jacks were able to overcome their lack of third down production for a while, they ultimately couldn't rise above four second half turnovers, their highest total in a game this season.
The most costly miscue came on SDSU's first possession of the second half. Up 10-3, the Jacks had the ball first-and-goal at the WIU two-yard line when running back Kyle Paris fumbled a direct snap from center and the Leathernecks fell on it. It would turn out to be the only fumble South Dakota State would lose in the entire regular season, but more importantly it cost the Jacks a chance to go up 17-3.
The Western Illinois offense converted that turnover into a game tying touchdown and added a go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter to make it 17-10.
The Leathernecks actually had a chance to put the game out of reach with six minutes left in the fourth quarter when the SDSU special teams came up big. A WIU 33-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Jimmie Forsythe, setting up a nine-play, 75 yard touchdown drive, capped by a Paris two-yard run, tying the game with 1:23 left, and forcing overtime.
Both teams found the end zone in the first extra period, but in the second, South Dakota State once again couldn't convert on third down and had to settle for a Jay Carlson 35-yard field goal attempt, which sailed wide right.
Western got the ball back and needed just four plays to end it - with a seven yard run from quarterback Sean McGuire. Final score - 30-24.
The win vaulted the Leathernecks into the FCS Playoffs, while knocking SDSU out of the Top Eight and the first round bye that came with it.
Instead, the Jackrabbits (8-3) have to travel to Montana for the opening round of the post season. It is the third straight year SDSU has started the playoffs on the road. They have won all of the previous three games.
The Grizzlies (7-4) finished tied for second in the Big Sky Conference in 2015. They began the year with a big win at home over four-time defending national champ North Dakota State. After that though, Montana lost four of seven, as quarterback Brady Gustafson was sidelined with a leg injury.
Montana's defense includes a player who tied for the lead in the FCS with sacks, defensive end Tyronne Holmes, who got to opposing quarterbacks 14 times this season.
The Grizzlies led the Big Sky in sacks and in Red Zone defense in 2015.
This will be the eighth meeting between South Dakota State and Montana. The Grizzlies have won all seven previous meetings, most recently a 61-48 loss in the opening round of the FCS Playoffs in 2009.
The winner of the game in Missoula plays at North Dakota State in Round Two.
SDSU is one of just five programs nationwide (NDSU, Coastal Carolina, New Hampshire, Sam Houston State) that has qualified for the playoffs the past four years. Each of the previous three years SDSU has lost on the road in the second round.
Kickoff is 2:00 PM CST Saturday, in Missoula.
Here is my interview with SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier on the Western Illinois loss and the Montana game: