South Dakota State routs UNH, 56-14, in FCS quarterfinals

  • South Dakota State University’s Jake Wieneke battles for the ball with University of New Hampshire defensive back Prince Smith Jr. during their FCS quarterfinal Saturday at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings, S.D. Wieneke gained 190 yards of total offense and scored three times in SDSU’s 56-14 win. Dave Eggen photos / Inertia Sports Media

  • BROOKINGS, SD - DECEMBER 9: Dallas Goedert #86 from South Dakota State University tries to slip the grasp of Pop Lacey #40 from the University of New Hampshire during their FCS quarterfinal game Saturday afternoon at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings, SD. (Photo by Dave Eggen/Inertia) Dave Eggen—Dave Eggen/Inertia

  • BROOKINGS, SD - DECEMBER 9: Quarterback Trevor Knight #18 from the University of New Hampshire pitches the ball to teammate Brandon Gallagher #29 against South Dakota State University during their FCS quarterfinal game Saturday afternoon at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings, SD. (Photo by Dave Eggen/Inertia) Dave Eggen—Dave Eggen/Inertia

  • BROOKINGS, SD - DECEMBER 9: Trevor Knight #18 from the University of New Hampshire slips past the grasp of Austin Smenda #34 from South Dakota State University during their FCS quarterfinal game Saturday afternoon at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings, SD. (Photo by Dave Eggen/Inertia) Dave Eggen—Dave Eggen/Inertia

  • UNH coach Sean McDonnell discusses a penalty with officials during the loss.

Monitor staff
Sunday, December 10, 2017

There’s no question the University of New Hampshire football team proved it belonged in the 2017 FCS playoffs. The Wildcats had some doubters after they got in with four losses, and they answered the doubts with a pair of postseason wins and a place among the elite eight.

But in Saturday’s quarterfinal, South Dakota State played at a different level than the ’Cats.

The fifth-seeded Jackrabbits (11-2) scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, piled up 455 total yards, including 265 yards on the ground, and ran away with a 56-14 win.

That’s the worst playoff loss in school history, the 42-point margin eclipsing the 39-point gap in UNH’s 46-7 loss in 2009 at Villanova, the eventual champs that year. The loss also had a similar feel to last season’s playoff exit, a 55-22 defeat at James Madison, the eventual champions in 2016 and South Dakota State’s semifinal opponent next week.

“Have some work to do to get to the top echelon of FCS football … you see the way (SDSU) played the game of football, as I told the players in the locker room, we’ve got to regroup, come back and figure out how to get to this spot,” UNH coach Sean McDonnell said. “So that’s what our job is. That’s what our mission is from now on.”

Defense powered UNH during its late-season surge. The Wildcats had allowed an average of just 10.5 points in their last five games, and had given up only 15 points total in the last eight quarters. On Saturday, SDSU scored 21 points in the first quarter.

South Dakota State quarterback Taryn Christion opened the game with three lasers for three completions and 49 yards on the first three plays. And then he ran in for a 13-yard touchdown to make it 7-0 just 3:19 into the game.

“They executed on the offensive side of the ball as well as any team we played against this year,” McDonnell said. “And it starts with their quarterback. He made a ton of plays.”

But it certainly didn’t end with their quarterback. After a three-and-out by UNH on its first series, SDSU’s three-time All-American receiver Jake Wieneke took an end around and ran 48 yards for a touchdown. Wienke holds the Missouri Valley Football Conference career records for receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, but he had never scored a rushing touchdown until Saturday. It was that kind of day for South Dakota State.

“They had really good play calling,” UNH senior captain and safety D’Andre Drummond-Mayrie said. “Called the right plays at the right time and they executed very well. Minimal mistakes. They just played very well out there.”

The next time the Jackrabbits got the ball, they brought their offensive show to the ground. Eight of the drive’s 12 plays were runs for a total of 61 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown from Isaac Wallace (the third-string running back who ended up with a team-high 79 yards) to give his team a 21-0 lead in the last minute of the first quarter.

New Hampshire was clearly staggered at this point, and then it got knocked flat when Christion (13-for-25, 190 yards, two touchdowns) and Wieneke (nine catches, 140 yards, two touchdowns) connected for a 32-yard touchdown to make it 28-0 with 5:29 left in the half.

The Wildcats were whistled for three penalties on their next four plays as they tried to pull themselves together. To their credit, they were able to do it as Trevor Knight scrambled for 18 yards on a third-and-11 and eventually led UNH to a first-and-goal from the SDSU 4.

As bad as things had gone, the Wildcats had scavenged a glimmer of hope. If they could score here and then do it again when they got the ball to start the second half, it would only be a two-score game.

Then the Jackrabbits stomped on the hope with a goal-line stand and took their 28-0 lead into halftime.

“It hurt to not get that last one at the end of the half, it might have helped, but I don’t think it would have been a determining factor,” McDonnell said. “Hats go off to them, boy. They played downhill on us.”

The downhill roll never slowed in the second half. Even when Knight hit Kieran Presley for a 75-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter for UNH’s first points, South Dakota State snapped the momentum back immediately, returning the ensuing kickoff for a 99-yard touchdown.

Knight finished 18-for-24 with 236 passing yards, but he had two interceptions. And the Wildcats ran for 96 yards in 32 attempts, a not-good-enough average of 3.0 yards per carry.

“I thought their defense was getting a lot of pressure against Trevor and they had a good scheme against us,” Presley said. “They watched the tape and how we were executing plays last week and the week before, so they did a good job coaching with that.”

It was an ugly loss, and the Wildcats are once again left on the outside looking in when it comes to a national championship. But the season still saw UNH extend its playoff streak to an FCS-best 14 straight years and New Hampshire was one of the last eight teams standing.

“Successful to an extent,” Drummond-Mayrie said. “Obviously the ultimate goal is to win a national championship, so we lost right now … but there are some positives that came out of the season, of course. You can’t sum up the season based on one loss at the end of the year.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341, tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)