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Analysis: Big day goes to Bison, but Jacks can cash in on excitement

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North Dakota State's Dimitri Williams takes a big hit from South Dakota State's Josh Manchigiah at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 26, in Brookings. (David Samson / Forum News Service)

BROOKINGS -- The most-hyped home football game in South Dakota State University history was coming down to fourth-and-6 inches.

That’s what faced the No. 1 North Dakota State football team’s offense. After a timeout from each side at the Bison 29-yard line, first-year NDSU coach Matt Entz said everyone in his offensive huddle wanted to go for it, and they dialed up a play to get a first down.

Adam Cofield got a lot more, busting the play off the right tackle and covering the rest of the distance for a 71-yard, Dakota Marker-winning touchdown run to beat No. 3 SDSU, 23-16, in front of 19,371 fans on Saturday.

“They were going to decide the fate of the game,” Entz said, of the demeanor and the decision of his players to make the gamble. “Not the coach.”

It capped a wild and exhilarating fourth quarter, in which SDSU had from down 16-6 to tie the game on a 75-yard drive by third-string true freshman quarterback Keaton Heide, capped by Heide’s own 3-yard touchdown run. SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier laughed when he was asked if he ever thought he would have to reach that deep into the depth chart in a game of this magnitude. After starting quarterback J’Bore Gibbs left the game with a knee injury late in the first quarter, Stiegelmeier relieved Mitchell native and junior Kanin Nelson to bring in Heide as a passing threat late in the game.

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Considering how the day started — with thousands of Jackrabbit fans behind the set of ESPN’s College GameDay for the first time on SDSU’s campus — a Jackrabbit win was sought as the perfect finish to the contest. That became tougher without the services of Gibbs, but SDSU still had a chance late.

That chance slipped away when, three plays after their own interception on an NDSU halfback pass attempt, Heide made an errant pass on third-and-9 from the Bison 31 that was picked off by Josh Hayes. Four plays later, Cofield was off and running for the game-winning touchdown.

The GameDay scene was both bonkers and bedlam, and injected an energy into the campus like never before. For college fans across the country on Saturday, their football-watching day started in Brookings, and put the nation’s best FCS rivalry on display. And the Jackrabbits represented themselves well, too. A record crowd of 19,371 was loud and impacted the game in favor of the home team. SDSU will surely try to capitalize on that momentum to boost its regular home attendance, which averaged 12,440 before the Dakota Marker game and typically drops off when the cold weather arrives.

“Awesome atmosphere, just the community and how it showed up and the whole process,” said SDSU linebacker Christian Rozeboom. “Crazy week. … It would have been more fun if we would have won.”

For SDSU, there will be a few other regrets, including that they had 13 chunk plays — defined as pass plays of 15 yards or more and rushing plays of 10 yards or more — but only managed one touchdown on the day. For much of the blue-clad contingent at Dykhouse Stadium, it was hard to look at the scoreboard at halftime — SDSU 6, NDSU 3 — and not wish more scoring had already been achieved.

But NDSU’s defense — which has allowed just six touchdowns in their opponents’ 17 red-zone trips — was as tough as ever. And the Bison defense — including South Dakota natives in Warner’s Derrek Tuszka and South Shore’s Spencer Waege on the defensive line — put pressure on what passing game SDSU could muster, picking up three sacks between them.

For all of the explosiveness both teams have, most of the game was waged on the ground. Combined, they ran for more than 550 yards, including 332 from the visiting Bison. But the big run by Cofield and the 59-yard touchdown run by Ty Brooks early in the third quarter for the game’s first touchdown were the big plays NDSU is always capable of, more proof of why they’re winners of their last 29 games, and why they remain the favorite to win their eighth national championship to end the decade this year.

“The margin of error is so small when you play good teams,” Rozeboom said.

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Both teams are headed to the playoffs, and there’s a chance that SDSU and NDSU could meet in the playoffs again. If that happens, it would be the fifth time in the last eight seasons, and possibly would take place in Fargo, like each of the last four. Ultimately, SDSU defeating NDSU in the playoffs is the final frontier left in this rivalry.

Or maybe the NCAA will place the teams on separate sides of the postseason bracket, and the border battle could take place in Frisco for a national championship on Jan. 11. Saturday proved both teams are national title contenders.

SDSU had a 15-game win streak at home snapped on Saturday, and Stiegelmeier said he would let the loss hurt for his players and coaches.

But if there’s a long-term, positive residual effect going forward for the Jackrabbits and their program from all of the excitement and energy, the single-game pain will be worth the price.

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