Jackrabbits sprint away from Cats

The Montana State Bobcats fell at home to the South Dakota State (SDSU) Jackrabbits this Saturday in the opening round of the FCS Playoffs, 47-40. The cold and snowy weather dampened attendance, but the loyal Bobcat fans that braved the nasty weather were rewarded with a rushing game explosion from both teams.

Following a crushing loss to the rival University of Montana Grizzlies last week, questions abounded about how the Cats would respond, but the Cats had a few key pieces back. Both sophomore quarterback Dakota Prukop and senior running back Shawn Johnson returned from injury, and the Bobcat offense looked rejuvenated. The defense, however, looked characteristically poor against a strong SDSU rushing attack, led by senior workhorse Zach Zenner.

Zenner got started early with a 45-yard touchdown run on just the second play of the game. Faced with the task of playing catch-up the entire game, the Montana State offense never faltered, matching the Jackrabbits blow for blow. After the quick opening SDSU drive, MSU responded with their own scoring drive, a plodding 12-play, 72-yarder capped with a rushing TD from sophomore Chad Newell. After a failed two-point conversion, the Cats closed the score to 7-6, but it didn’t stay that way for long.

Another quick scoring drive by SDSU — this time three plays covering 74 yards — was capped by a Zenner touchdown, this time on a 69-yard screen pass, put the Jackrabbits up 14-6. The teams once again traded scores late in the second quarter, the Cats with a couple of sustained drives and the Jackrabbits with another three play TD drive. Thanks to a score with just nine seconds left in the half, the Cats headed into the locker room down just 24-20.

It seemed that every time the Bobcats gained momentum, it was quickly snuffed out by SDSU. Newell opened the second half with yet another touchdown plunge to give the Bobcats the lead. But Zenner, not to be outdone, punched back with his fourth scoring scamper of the game, outrunning everyone on the field for a 60-yarder to return the lead to the Jackrabbits.  Down 31-26, the Cats never regained the lead and could do nothing but watch as Zenner piled on the yards.

“That guy gets a head of steam and he’s tough to bring down,” senior linebacker Cole Moore said after the game. “It’s demoralizing, seeing him run like that.”

The Jackrabbits pushed their lead to 15 when Zenner scored his fifth touchdown of the day on a two play, 67-yard drive, also the fifth three-or-less play drive of the game for SDSU. The Bobcats, to their credit, never said die. Prukop engineered a quick drive and a two-point conversion to cut the lead down to seven and gave the Cats an opportunity if they could get a lucky bounce on an onside kick.

MSU punter, junior Trevor Bolton, delivered the kick and senior Alex Singleton jarred the ball loose, but the Bobcats couldn’t hang on in the scrum and the Jackrabbits secured the ball and the victory.

Prukop threw for 280 yards and a touchdown while rushing for just 14 after missing two games due to a knee injury. Newell was the star for the Bobcats though, rushing for 101 yards and five touchdowns. For SDSU, Zenner rushed for 252 yards and five total scores while quarterback Austin Sumner threw for 249 yards and two TDs.

“First and foremost,” MSU Head Coach Rob Ash said at the postgame press conference, “I’d like to say thank you to our fans who came out and braved the conditions. The numbers may have been down, but the passion was absolutely there.”

The SDSU Jackrabbits advance to face three-time defending champions North Dakota State in the second round of the FCS Playoffs on Saturday, Dec. 6. The Bobcats, on the other hand, end their season at 8-5. The 2014 campaign was filled with new faces at many key positions but hit the ground running before the injuries began to pile up and the Cats lost three of their last five games.

The future looks incredibly bright though for the Bobcats.All five starters on the offensive line return, as well as Prukop. Many young receivers and running backs stepped up this season and got significant playing experience and will only get better as they progress. On the other side of the ball, the defense graduates some key players in cornerback Deonte Flowers and linebackers Na’a Moeakiola, Cole Moore and Alex Singleton. As a unit though, the defense frankly couldn’t be much worse and has nowhere to go but up.

Prukop put it best after the tough loss: “It’ll sit with us for 24 hours and then we’re on to next season. We’ll come back and be even better. I feel bad for whoever we play first.”