YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — For the second time in as many weeks, the South Dakota State football team played a sluggish first half before using a second-half surge to win a Missouri Valley Football Conference game.
No. 17 Youngstown State (4-2) watched a 21-9 second-half lead evaporate as the third-ranked Jackrabbits (5-1) roared back to a 38-28 win Saturday night at Stambaugh Stadium.
“We knew they were going to come out rowdy — it’s their homecoming and their home field,” SDSU quarterback J’Bore Gibbs said in a postgame radio interview. “Going into halftime we weren’t too shocked or nervous or anything. We just knew we had to do our jobs coming out in the second half and execute more than them.”
While YSU senior quarterback Nathan Mays accounted for 234 total yards and three touchdowns, it was two second-half interceptions that swung momentum in SDSU’s favor.
“We were honestly surprised he played, but he showed how tough he is tonight,” SDSU junior cornerback Don Gardner said of Mays, who suffered a lower-body injury in the Penguins’ last game. “He was going down with bumps and bruises and tried to fight his way to a win — he’s a pretty good guy.”
Even Mays’ impressive night couldn’t outduel SDSU’s redshirt freshman quarterback.
Gibbs passed for 210 yards and a touchdown, adding 75 yards and two scores on the ground. This including a 63-yard touchdown sprint on third down with less than a minute remaining to secure the victory.
“I was actually supposed to slide,” Gibbs said. “I started to slow down at the 20-yard line because I was like, ‘Am I supposed to slide now?’ But I just saw green grass and wasn’t going to let the dude catch me from behind.”
If it wasn’t for the heroics of their young quarterback, the Jacks likely would have lost, but the game got out to a promising start for the yellow and blue.
Sophomore running back Pierre Strong Jr. broke loose for a 41-yard run on the second play from scrimmage and the Jacks’ first drive ended with a 36-yard field goal from Chase Vinatieri.
But that was about the only good thing SDSU did in the first half.
Later in the first quarter, Mays fooled the defense on a read-option and went 28 yards untouched to put the Penguins up 7-3. The YSU drive was kept alive by 45 yards worth of Jackrabbit penalties.
Mays would add his second rushing touchdown four minutes into the second quarter, giving YSU a 14-3 lead it would take into the locker room.
Miscues were plentiful early on for the Jacks, who accumulated eight penalties for 90 yards in just the first 30 minutes of action.
“It was totally baffling,” SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said. “It wasn’t like we were bad guys, it was like we were playing without a brain. So I’m disappointed … that’s not Jackrabbit football — they’ll hear about it Monday I guarantee you.”
But with the second half came a noticeable change in the SDSU performance and demeanor.
SDSU’s defense has been among the Football Championship Subdivision’s best to this point in the season, so it was only fitting the defense started the second-half comeback.
Early in the third quarter, Gardner took an interception 42 yards for a score off of a deflection. After a failed 2-point conversion, SDSU trailed 14-9.
“That was huge, unbelievable,” Stiegelmeier said. “Any time you score instantly like that on defense it just energizes everybody. Even though it didn’t put us ahead, it gave us a lot of energy.”
The Penguins took back the momentum on their next drive when Mays found his wide-open tailback for a 45-yard touchdown.
Not to be outdone, Gibbs led the Jackrabbits on a 13-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a Gibbs two-yard touchdown run to bring the score to 21-16.
Five minutes later, Gibbs and junior wide receiver Cade Johnson connected on an 81-yard touchdown.
“We knew it was the right call at that time,” Gibbs said. “I was just reading the safety — if he stayed down enough for a double move from Cade right there — it was perfect.”
On the next snap of the football, Johnson threw a 2-point conversion pass on a trick play to make the score 24-21 in favor of the Jacks.
Another Mays interception set the Jacks up in YSU territory, and C.J. Wilson would make the most of the opportunity. The sophomore running back carried five times for 40 yards on the drive, including the punctuating 13-yard touchdown scamper.
YSU found the end zone again with under three minutes to go, but it would be too little too late.
“[We’re] two good football teams in the Missouri Valley playing football, it’s going to be a battle,” Stiegelmeier said.
The Jackrabbits are on the road again next weekend as they take on Indiana State at noon Saturday in Terre Haute.
“Based on the scores, I’m sure they’re battling to keep their heads up, but it doesn’t matter,” Stiegelmeier said. “We’re going on the road in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Our goal is to get better every week, every day and it’s another opportunity to do that.”