By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Okay folks, can we establish once and for all that South Dakota State wasn't the worst at-large team in the 2012 NCAA Division I Football Championship field?
If there was any doubt that the Jackrabbits belonged, they crushed it about as quickly as they demolished Eastern Illinois in the first-round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs on Saturday.
Playing before a crowd of 4,367 fans at Coughlin-Alumni Stadium, SDSU rolled to a 58-10 victory over the Panthers as running back Zach Zenner pounded the EIU defense for a single-game, school-record 295 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries.
Zenner, who bettered the SDSU rushing mark by four yards, piled up 246 yards on 24 attempts in the first half alone.
Next up for South Dakota State is a rematch with rival and No. 1 seed North Dakota State — the team that cost the Jackrabbits a share of the Missouri Valley Football Conference title — next Saturday at the Fargo Dome.
NDSU edged SDSU 20-17 three weeks ago at the loud and jammed-packed Fargo Dome in what amounted to a MVFC championship game.
Reginald Gandy added to South Dakota State's ground dominance with 16 rushing attempts for 151 yards and two more scores as the Jackrabbits broke open a 10-0 game with a 24-3 outburst in the second period.
SDSU quarterback Austin Sumner didn't have the most efficient day in the cold and blustery conditions, but he did balance the Jackrabbit attack enough with 13 completions in 28 attempts for 146 yards and one touchdown on an afternoon where South Dakota State won the turnover battle, 2-0.
The Jackrabbits piled up a 580-366 advantage in total offense, including a 434-145 edge on the ground.
Leading 34-3, this game was pretty much over, even with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the high-octane Eastern Illinois offense on the opposite sideline.
South Dakota State (9-3) limited Garoppolo — the second-leading passer in FCS in terms of yardage — to 25-of-41 passing for 241 yards and zero touchdowns, with one interception as the Jackrabbit defense constantly pressured the junior.
Senior defensive end Andy Mink led the Jackrabbit defensive effort with a game-high eight tackles and forced one fumble.
Record-setting Eastern Illinois receiver Erik Lora managed 12 catches for 133 yards to end his junior campaign with an FCS-best 137 receptions, but even Lora couldn;t get into the end zone for the Panthers (7-5).
South Dakota State knew better than to take the foot off the accelerator in an NCAA playoff game.
The last time that the Jackrabbits had been in the playoffs in 2009, they led Montana 48-21 late in the third period at daunting Washington-Grizzly Stadium before making the ill-advised decision to kickoff to future-NFL All-Pro returnman Marc Mariani.
Mariani responded with a 98-yard return for a touchdown that woke up the Montana crowd and sparked a 34-point fourth quarter finish as the Grizzlies won 61-48 for the greatest comeback in FCS history, on the way to a runner-up finish in the playoffs.
It is a memory that still haunts SDSU coach John Stieglemeier and the handful of seniors still on the roster.
But the Jackrabbits finished strong in just the third NCAA postseason game at any level for SDSU, outscoring the Ohio Valley Conference champion 21-7 in the fourth period to earn the school's first playoff win.