Top-seeded South Dakota State turned the tide with a goal-line stand and ensuing 67-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter by quarterback Mark Gronowski to turn back Southern Illinois, 31-26, in a Football Championship Subdivision playoff quarterfinal Sunday night at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.
The Jackrabbits, who defeated SIU for the second time this season, improved to 7-1 overall and will host Delaware in a semifinal game at 11 a.m. Saturday (May 8), with television coverage on ESPN. SIU had its season come to an end with a 6-4 record.
SDSU overcame a 20-7 first-half deficit after the Salukis scored on four of their five first-half possessions. The Jackrabbits opened the scoring on the first drive of the game, capping a five-play, 60-yard drive on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Gronowski to Jadon Janke.
SIU offensive lineman ZeVeyon Furcon plunged in from a yard out on the Salukis’ first drive to finish off an 11-play, 75-yard drive, and Avante Cox gave the Salukis a 14-7 advantage on an 11-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter.
Nico Gualdoni added field goals of 19 and 33 yards later in the second quarter for SIU, the latter of the two coming with 22 seconds remaining in the first half.
The Jackrabbits gained a measure of momentum heading into the locker room as Isaiah Davis broke off a 50-yard kickoff return to the SIU 48 and Gronowski connected with Pierre Strong, Jr. on a 31-yard catch and run to set up a 34-yard field goal by Cole Frahm as time expired.
SDSU’s Joshua Manchigiah picked off a pass in the end zone on SIU’s opening drive of the second half and the Jackrabbits pulled to within 20-17 four plays later as Gronowski and Jadon Janke again hooked up for a 26-yard touchdown.
SIU had first-and-goal at the Jackrabbit 1-yard line late in the third quarter and came away with nothing. After an incomplete pass between two rushes that netted no yards, Furcon was stuffed just short of the goal on fourth down on the first play of the fourth quarter to keep the score at 20-17.
The Jackrabbits converted on third-and-8 from their own 3-yard line on a 24-yard pass from Gronowski to Jaxon Janke, then three plays later Gronowski stepped through a tackle at the line of scrimmage and sprinted 67 yards to the end zone.
After SIU lost a fumble on a bad pitch on its next drive, SDSU again quickly capitalized to build a 31-20 lead. A Gronowski-to-Blake Kunz pass went for 30 yards to the SIU 13 and Isaiah Davis carried in from 4 yards out three plays later for the score.
The Salukis quickly responded with a 31-yard touchdown pass from Stone Labanowitz to Landon Lenoir with 5:37 to play, but the two-point attempt failed.
SIU got the ball back with 2:19 remaining at its own 22 and converted on a pair of third-down plays to move into Jackrabbit territory. However, Jackrabbit safety Michael Griffin II came up with SDSU’s third takeaway of the game with 13 seconds remaining, picking off a pass at the 9-yard line.
Total offense was nearly even as SIU gained 443 yards, compared to 414 by the Jackrabbits. However, the Salukis held an 11-minute advantage in time of possession, 35:43 to 24:17.
Gronowski accounted for 325 yards of total offense, completing 9-of-16 passes for 183 yards and rushing 13 times for a game-high 142 yards.
For SIU, Labanowitz ended the night 24-of-36 passing for 247 yards and shared team-high honors with Justin Strong with 38 rushing yards. Lenoir hauled in six passes for 129 yards.
Logan Backhaus led the SDSU defense with 14 tackles, while fellow linebacker Adam Bock tallied 13 stops.
Jordan Berner and Qua Brown each registered seven tackles for SIU.