Southern Illinois used trick plays, dominated time of possession, committed half as many penalties and generally controlled the game Sunday night at Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs No. 1 seed South Dakota State.
Neither the Salukis' 13-point lead with less than a minute to play in the first half nor their last-minute march into Jackrabbits territory was enough to provide a second-straight stunning upset in the playoffs. They had dispatched host Weber State the prior week.
SDSU scored 14 unanswered fourth-quarter points and then withstood the Salukis' spirited late-game rally in the 31-26 win.
Yet this game might have been forever changed when SIU quarterback Stone Labanowitz connected with running back Javon Williams Jr. for what was ruled a 16-yard pass down inside SDSU's 1-yard line.
Replays showed that, at minimum, there should have been … a replay on the field to see if Williams danced just inside the left-front pylon for a touchdown, with his team at that time clinging to its final lead, 20-17.
Watch the play below:
It's unclear why the play was not at all reviewed; too, it's important to note the Salukis still had four cracks from inside the 1-yard line to push back out to a 10-point lead.
“Ultimately, I'm the play-caller and we've got to have a couple that we've got to get in,” said fifth-year SIU head coach Nick Hill, an alum who's turned around the Salukis programs. “Ultimately, we threw a couple in. We scored 26, with 20 in the first half. I don't even know if we punted in the second half. We were down there the whole time, but we're playing a really good football team.”
The Salukis did not punt on any of their second-half possessions; they punted only once in the game and also scored on five possessions. They had the no-touchdown drive end inside the 1, had a pair of interceptions inside Jackrabbits' territory and also lost a fumble near midfield.
SDSU quarterback Mark Gronowski also led three second-half touchdown drives that covered 80, 99 and 43 yards.
The Jackrabbits (7-1) now host surprising Delaware (7-0) Saturday
BLUE HENS CROWING
Delaware executed the weekend action's biggest upset; the Blue Hens scored 14 points in the game's first 11 minutes, 32 seconds and then limited the No. 4-seeded and host Jacksonville State Gamecocks to a scant 200 yards' total offense in the win.
“To be able to come down here on the road, in this round, and find a way to win and advance shows this football team can win in a lot of different ways," Delaware coach Danny Rocco said.
The Gamecocks also lost quarterback Zion Webb early in the game and ultimately played three signal-callers in the game, getting a spark from true freshman AC Graham on a 74-yard scoring run through the middle of the Blue Hens defense.
NO. 3 SEED, NO. 1 CONTENDER?
James Madison has been a top-ranked squad but coach Curt Cignetti hasn't hidden his displeasure with the Dukes' No. 3 national seeding.
In the quarterfinals, JMU was the only squad to win by double digits. The Dukes' 34-21 win – a 13-point edge – was just two less than the combined 15 points' margin of victory in the other three quarterfinals contests (SDSU by 5, Delaware by 6, Sam Houston State by 4).
As it handled visiting and seventh-ranked North Dakota, JMU scored a touchdown or more in all four quarters, amassed 468 yards' offense and commanded the ball for almost 37 minutes.
The Dukes (7-0) visit Sam Houston State Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
BEARKATS BEAR DOWN
Sam Houston State hosting North Dakota State might have been the weekend's most enticing matchup.
The Bearkats are an FCS Playoffs fixture and close to crossing the threshold to elite status.
NDSU is the sport's king figure of the past decade. The Bison even saw their quarterback from a year ago, Trey Lance, taken third in the NFL Draft Thursday night.
Sam Houston State never had lost a home playoff game; the Bison have won eight national championships since 2011.
Sam Houston's still unblemished at home. The Bearkats leaned on the defense, which allowed the Bison just 229 total yards, withstood their guests' 18-0 run and scored the decisive touchdown with less than four minutes to play in their 24-20 win.
The No. 2 seed Bearkats get another mega-test of their homefield advantage this week when the host No. 3-seeded James Madison.
Sam Houston coach K.C. Keeler now has 22 career playoff wins – tied for second-most all-time in the sport.