BROOKINGS -- For the first time in school history, South Dakota State University will play for a national championship in football.
The Jackrabbits scored 27 straight points Saturday in the first half to dominate visiting Delaware and cruise to a 33-3 FCS semifinal victory in front of 4,527 fans at Dykhouse Stadium.
SDSU (8-1) now takes on second-seeded Sam Houston (9-0) at 1 p.m. on Sunday, May 16. The game will be televised on ABC.
Quarterback Mark Gronowski threw two touchdowns and caught another from running back Pierre Strong to carry the Jackrabbits to a 24-point halftime lead. SDSU scored on four straight possessions to end the first half to turn what was anticipated to be a close game into an easy victory.
“We beat a good football team,” SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said. “I didn’t think it would turn out that way. I thought it would be a tougher battle.”
Delaware got on the board first with a short field goal following a 15-play, nearly 8-minute drive in the first quarter that included three third-down conversions but SDSU’s Caleb Sanders got a sack of Delaware quarterback Nolan Henderson to halt the drive. Henderson, who was already nursing a shoulder injury before Saturday, hurt his knee on the play and missed a series before coming back into the game in the second quarter.
The Jacks, the top seed in the 16-team playoff bracket, answered the opening score by the Blue Hens with a seven-play scoring drive, capped by a 30-yard touchdown pass on a post route from Jaxon Janke from the arm of Gronowski. SDSU forced a punt, and scored three plays later from the Delaware 24-yard-line, when a swing-pass lateral to Pierre Strong Jr. from Gronowski was returned to Gronowski on the right side of the field, where he weaved through a convoy of blockers to the end zone for a 14-3 lead.
SDSU continued to score quickly and efficiently. After a Delaware three-and-out that included two SDSU sacks, the Jacks got a 55-yard punt return from Janke to the Delaware 27. Four plays later, Strong found the end zone from three yards out to make it 20-3 after a missed extra point.
Delaware’s last effort to score in the first half was long (12 plays), slow (6 minutes, 34 seconds) and came up empty, with a 53-yard field goal blocked by SDSU’s Reece Winkleman. The Jackrabbits responded with an eight-play scoring drive for a 14-yard touchdown pass to Blake Kunz from Gronowski, which made the score 27-3.
“We have one of the best defenses in the country, the best, in my opinion,” Janke said. “The offense feeds off that and you can see it.”
Henderson was 11-for-11 passing for 96 yards in the first half but had to outrun the Jackrabbit defensive line often. Delaware had 216 yards in the game, or 3.2 yards per play, Henderson accounting for 142 yards on 18 of 21 passing.
“(I) thought we could go toe to toe with them and we obviously couldn’t today,” Delaware coach Danny Rocco said. “At the end of the day, South Dakota State performed extremely well. … We didn’t get any breaks but we didn’t earn them or force them today.”
SDSU finished with 12 tackles for loss and seven sacks, which ties a playoff record and was the most in a game this season. The Blue Hens rushed 45 times for 68 yards in the loss.
“We’ve always been at the door to get down to Frisco, made the semifinals a few times,” Winkelman said. “Now we opened that door and step down there. We deserve it.”
Gronowski had 162 passing yards on 10 of 16 passing. Strong rushed for 73 yards on 14 carries, while Isaiah Davis had 70 yards on nine rushes for the Jacks, which had 168 yards rushing on 32 carries. Delaware (7-1) allowed a season-high for points and opponent offensive yards, with SDSU finishing with 354 for the game.
Cole Frahm had a pair of second-half field goals for the Jackrabbits to account for the scoring after halftime, the second of which came on a 91-yard drive.
NOTES: With the win, SDSU improves to 11-9 all-time in the FCS playoffs. … The win is SDSU’s seventh in a row. ... SDSU is now 30-5 in home games since Dykhouse Stadium opened in 2016. ... Sam Houston rallied from a 24-3 hole to win Saturday 38-35 in the other FCS semifinal.
UD 3 0 0 0 -- 3
SDSU 7 20 3 0 -- 33
UD: Ryan Coe 29 field goal, 3:44.
SDSU: Jaxon Janke 30 pass from Mark Gronowski, 0:13 (Cole Frahm kick)
SDSU: Gronowski 24 pass from Pierre Strong Jr., 12:18. (Frahm kick)
SDSU: Strong 3 run, 8:22. (kick missed)
SDSU: Blake Kunz 14 pass from Gronowski, 0:21. (Frahm kick)
SDSU: Frahm 41 field goal, 8:23.
SDSU: Frahm 22 field goal, 7:22