Lee Corso grabbed the mascot head of Thundar, turned to thousands gathered on the College Green plaza on the South Dakota State campus and declared picking the winner of the Jackrabbit and North Dakota State football game was about family. The bison that carries his last name is hanging out these days at a zoo.
And that’s what you had in the fourth quarter at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium. A zoo. A slobber knocker. If ESPN’s “College GameDay” was all about showcasing NCAA Division I FCS football, then NDSU’s 23-16 win over the Jackrabbits before a record crowd of 19,371 more than qualified.
This was a playoff game in the regular season. Nobody left early. Bison players probably looked up at the crowd midway in the fourth quarter and wondered why everybody was still there.
The fact the place was so loud so late in the day was a testament to caffeine and whatever else football fans did to stay awake. Many were at “GameDay” in the morning dark before the show went on the air at 8 a.m.
“Awesome atmosphere, just the community and how it showed up and the whole process,” said SDSU linebacker Christian Rozeboom. “Crazy week. A lot of fun. It would have been more fun if we would have won.”
The Jackrabbits were in position to win when NDSU’s attempt at trickery went awry. Facing third-and-2 from their own 30-yard line, Bison running back Dimitri Williams pulled up after running to the outside and had a wide open tight end Josh Babicz in his sights. Problem was Williams had SDSU cornerback Don Gardner in his face, and the pressure forced Williams to throw an interception to SDSU linebacker Levi Brown.
The Jackrabbits have a senior kicker who was already in range to break a 16-16 tie. But on third-and-9, true freshman backup quarterback Keaton Heide threw an ill-advised pass into coverage that Josh Hayes picked off.
It was an ill-advised play call putting the onus on a backup rookie quarterback who was playing at Wayzata (Minn.) High School in the Twin Cities at this time last year. SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier said as much virtually calling out his staff after the game.
“I think we have to take responsibility for that,” he said. “He needs to know we’re fine kicking a field goal. It wasn’t there and he threw it right to their guy. I’m going to put a lot of pressure on our coaches, that’s a freshman out there.”
The sensible thing would have been to give running back Pierre Strong the ball. He was effective all day finishing with 120 yards.
It turned the pendulum back to NDSU. Yes, it was a win. It could have major playoff stipulations down the line in both seeding and home field advantage. But let the arm-chair-quarterback, second guessing begin.
This Entz fella keeps things interesting.
Head coach Matt Entz allowed NDSU to try a two-point conversion again. The Bison went up 16-6 on a touchdown pass to Ben Ellefson late in the third quarter. But the failed two-point conversion left it a 10-point game, which SDSU ultimately tied.
That was not the time to try the two-pointer, but overall, I like the imagination. Gardner made a play on a play-call that would have went for big yards to Babicz.
And going for it on fourth-and-1 at your own 29-yard line with under three minutes left in the game?
After years of playing-it-by-the-book FCS coaching of Craig Bohl and Chris Klieman, Entz isn’t afraid to mix it up.
“We needed to be aggressive,” Entz said. “We didn’t want our kids to get comfortable, here we go the same old offense every snap. It worked out OK. If we convert on those, we look like geniuses.”
As it was, the Marker will remain at the Bison football office in the Fargodome. It was business as usual for NDSU during the week with just a couple of interviews with ESPN. None of the four players at the post-game press conference watched any part of the “GameDay” show.
“We blocked out all the outside noise,” said Bison defensive end Derrek Tuszka. “We let the fans enjoy all of that.”
Like Fargo did in 2013 and 2014, Brookings enjoyed its time in the limelight. Adam Cofield ruined the day, however, with his 71-yard touchdown run on the fourth-and-1 play.
“We should all be able to enjoy something, flip the switch and coach and play a football game,” Stiegelmeier said. “We treat everybody like family and we enjoyed the event like a family would.”
Corso treats everybody like family, too. His own pet bison. In the end, with fans booing at him from all corners of College Green, he was right.