Strong second half leads SDSU past Southern Illinois in FCS quarterfinals

KELOLAND.com Original

BROOKINGS, S.D. (KELO) — Kicker Nico Gualdoni connected on a 33-yard field goal, giving Southern Illinois a 20-7 lead, with just 22 seconds to play in the first half. The Salukis had scored 20 unanswered points.

Yet SDSU responded, despite the limited time as a long kick return by Isaiah Davis and a solid pass play to Tucker Kraft. That put the Jacks in field goal range as Cole Frahm closed the half on a 34 yard boot.

“That (field goal) was huge. It really built a lot of confidence for us, going into the second half,” SDSU quarterback Mark Gronowski said. “It put a little juice and made us feel like we can do this, we can make this comeback and this game is ours.”

The Salukis led 20-10 at halftime.

Southern Illinois opened the third quarter with a strong drive, that led to a fourth and six situation.

Stone Labanowitz’s pass would be intercepted by Josh Manchigiah and that seemed to light the fire for State.

Despite some struggles in the first half, SDSU quarterback Mark Gronowski got into a rhythm in the next drive and helped close a four play, eighty yard drive with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jadon Janke.

SDSU now trailed 20-17.

The following Saluki drive was an impressive drive that went 17 plays, 64 yards and took more than eight minutes, but ended with a turnover on downs.

Southern Illinois nearly scored a touchdown, but it was ruled out at the one yard line. SDSU’s defense would come up the stop.

“It was huge! It was a big momentum swing, it was something that we really needed, we really needed that stop,” SDSU defensive tackle Caleb Sanders said. “Once we got it, I think the offense just took over and got the job done.”

Six plays later, SDSU had worked their way out to the 33 and then Gronowski changed the game on one play as he found a hole and took the ball 67 yards.

“One of our linemen just came around and made a great block on one of their linebackers and I basically had one guy to beat and I broke that tackle and then it was off to the races,” Gronowski said. “I just had to keep going as fast as I could and keep my feet high, my knees high and not get tripped up at the end.”

SDSU grabbed their first lead since the middle of the first quarter, 24-20.

The Jacks forced a fumble on the next Southern Illinois drive and SDSU turned that into a four-yard, Isaiah Davis touchdown run.

The Jacks seemed to have it in cruise control at that point, leading 31-20 with 7 minutes to play, but the Salukis answered.

Labonowitz connected with Landon Lenoir for a 31 yard touchdown, cutting the SDSU lead to 31-26.

SDSU would be forced to punt and that opened the door for the Salukis to potentially win the game.

However, following a ten play, 42 yard drive, SDSU’s Michael Griffin II came up with an interception to seal the win, with just 13 seconds to play.

SDSU earned the 31-26 win over Southern Illinois. The Jacks will now face Delaware in the FCS playoff semi-finals.

“For a game, this was probably the craziest moment in my lifetime,” Jadon Janke said.

Gronowski’s strong second half performance helped lead the Jackrabbits to a win. The freshman quarterback totaled 325 yards including 183 through the air and 142 on the ground.

He also added three total touchdowns including two through the air and one via the run.

Gronowski led the ground game as the Jacks posted yet another staggering performance of 231 rushing yards.

“I mean, I really have to give it up to our linemen first of all. They’re just a great group of guys, always giving one-hundred percent, giving all their effort every single play, even in practice,” Gronowski said. “They really just give us the push every single time.”

The Jacks will host Delaware on Saturday, May 8.

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