Sep. 10—BROOKINGS — For much of the first 30 minutes of their long-awaited showdown with No. 3 Montana State the top-ranked Jackrabbits looked flat and listless, especially on offense. They trailed 10-0 at halftime, and it felt like they were fortunate to be that close.
It was the first time since a 2015 loss to North Dakota State that the Jacks were held scoreless in the first half, and marked new coach Jimmy Rogers' first opportunity to rally his troops at the break.
While longtime coach John Stiegelmeier rarely if ever laid into his team at halftime of even their worst performances, Rogers is known as a much more intense and emotional coach than his predecessor. But the fiery halftime speeches so often portrayed in football movies are far less realistic than many fans might realize.
No, Rogers said when asked, he did not get after his players in the locker room.
"They knew they hadn't played their best football," Rogers said. "They knew we're better than that. It was just...we had multiple false starts, we had two unsportsmanlike conducts; stuff like that will kill you. I'm proud of the group and how they responded. We told 'em all week you got to handle the moment. It's not what you do it's how you respond and I'm happy with how they responded."
The Jacks held on for the 20-16 win, and can take solace in knowing they survived arguably their biggest test of the regular season without playing anything close to their best. Rogers insisted all week that the game would not make or break the Jacks' season, and Bobcats coach Brent Vigen said the same after taking the loss. But the win was huge for SDSU, as the loser faces an uphill battle if they want to secure home field advantage in the FCS playoffs.
* As the game moved to the second half, Bobcats starting quarterback Tommy Mellott had to leave the game after taking too much damage running the ball. Sean Chambers, who's more of a co-starter than a true backup, played the rest of the game and hurt the Jacks with his legs, rushing for 90 yards on 20 attempts, while Mellott had 46 yards on 11 rushes before leaving. While they had no run of longer than 13 yards, the Bobcat quarterbacks repeatedly gashed the Jacks defense with chunks of yardage that kept them ahead of schedule. Were it not for their whopping nine false starts the Bobcats wouldn't have faced as many difficult third downs (they converted 4 of 12) and could have won the game.
Chambers' effectiveness running the ball was especially frustrating as the Bobcats drove for the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter, as MSU made little effort to hide their plan. They were running right at the Jacks with Chambers, and SDSU simply couldn't stop it. But Rogers indicated that his staff's respect for Chambers' passing ability made them leery to load up the box. While Chambers didn't complete a pass until the game's final drive, he then connected on three passes for 53 yards and nearly completed a 24-yard touchdown pass to win the game in the final seconds, with the call overturned by the officials to give SDSU the win.
"You know what, the kid will kill you with his arm, too," Rogers said of Chambers. "You can't live in Cover 0 the whole game, right? They line up in empty and they make you defend all 11. At times the 2nd and 1s, the 2nd and 3s, those aren't worth the big shot. We've just got to keep battling and stay the course. I'm proud of our defensive staff. (MSU) created some wrinkles we're gonna need to adjust to throughout the season, because offenses in our league and in college football, they're gonna go back to the plays they saw you struggle with. So we'll fix the mistakes and some of the scheme stuff they caught us in and keep getting better."
* The Jacks added a full-time special teams coach to their staff for the first time this year in Pat Cashmore, who received nothing but high marks throughout preseason as he worked to sharpen the SDSU kicking and return games. But after a strong debut in the season opening win over Western Oregon, the special teams took a significant step back against the Bobcats, all in about a four-minute stretch in the fourth quarter
First, Hunter Dustman missed an extra point, ending a streak of 67 straight converted PATs for him and 139 straight for the Jacks. It was a crucial miss, as it left SDSU with a lead of 13-10 instead of 14-10.
MSU's Marqui Johnson then returned the ensuing kickoff 59 yards, and while Cale Reeder's interception snuffed out that drive, the Jacks offense responded with a three-and-out and Dustman's punt was blocked and recovered at the SDSU 1-yard line, setting up a game-tying field goal.
"That needs to get better," Rogers said. "Those plays will lose you games."
Rogers took some of the responsibility himself, noting that in a close game the coaches have to balance putting their best players on the special teams units with having fresh bodies available for those plays.
"I'm excited for this group but we can't have blocked punts," he said.
* The crowd of 19,332 was the second-largest in Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium history. Only the 19,371 that attended the SDSU vs NDSU game with ESPN's College Gameday on hand was larger.