WICHITA FALLS, TEXAS – In heartbreaking fashion, the No. 18 University of Sioux Falls Football Team's (9-3) season ended in a 24-20 setback to No. 5 Midwestern State (10-0) in the first round of the NCAA DII Football Championship before 7,502 in attendance at a windy Memorial Stadium.
The Cougars jumped to a 17-0 before the Mustangs responded with a 24-0 run over the second and third quarters to rally and take the lead. While MWSU was held scoreless in the fourth quarter, and the Cougars added a field goal, it wasn't enough. USF was hurt by a pair of turnovers and couldn't convert a red-zone opportunity in the final three minutes.
"We had some opportunities but needed to make just another play or two to pull this one out," said USF Head Coach Jon Anderson, who lost his first playoff game as head coach.
With the setback, the Cougars had an 11-game road winning streak end, a mark that had ranked second best nationally. USF, which is now 2-3 in the DII postseason games and 38-15 all-time in playoff games, finished with its fourth straight season of nine wins or more.
In a post-game press conference, Anderson noted the leadership of a group of seniors, who he labeled "an outstanding group with a tremendous bond for each other, this team and the university. They stepped up when some thought they might not reach this level. They were outstanding all season," added Anderson of the 21 seniors which compiled a 41-8 record during their time with the Cougars.
"I am extremely proud of this team and the effort they made this season," said Anderson. "We showed fight all season and turned into a really solid football team. We are saddened that the season has ended for our seniors who were a special group. We will build on this and come back with momentum next fall," he said.
On Saturday, the Cougars welcomed the return of senior All-American Max Mickey, who had 11 carries for 64 yards and a 20-yard TD. Mickey, who had not played in six weeks (24-10 win over Southwest Minnesota State) finished his brilliant career with 586 carries for 3,720 yards and 41 TDs, eighth all-time. Mickey, whose 3,720 yards ranks fourth all-time in school history, finished with 937 yards on 157 carries with eight TDs.
Overall, USF was outgained just 357-to-354 yards in total offense. Once again the Cougars defense caused problems for an explosive offense. Coming in MWSU was averaging 518 yards in total offense and 321 through the air. They managed just 239 yards passing from their All-Lone Star Conference quarterback Layton Rabb. The Cougars rushing defense, led by three-time all-league safety Josh Butler, held the Mustangs to 118 yards rushing on 36 carries for 3.3 per carry.
Meanwhile, the USF had 26 carries for 96 yards from Jason Towns, who finished with 217 carries for 958 yards and six TDs. Junior quarterback Ian Fieber completed 12-of-22 passes for 195 yards and a TD. Meanwhile senior tight end Nick Stanke, who had a team-high five catches for 83 yards, finished with 102 receptions in his career, ranking third all-time in receptions at USF for tight ends.
Butler, who had a career-best 15 tackles, a TFL and fumble recovery, finished his career with 255 tackles in 45 games. Senior Dennis Gardeck had nine tackles with 1.5 TFLs as he finished with an NSIC-best 21 TFLs and 14 sacks on the season, which ranks top three nationally. A first-team All-NSIC pick, Gardeck finished with 345 career tackles, 57.5 TFLs and 32 sacks.
Things were bright for the Cougars early as Mickey's 20-yard TD run gave USF a 7-0 lead. His run capped a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive in 5:51 as the Cougars had 11 carries in facing a win that gusted at 40 mles per hour. Early in the second quarter, Stuart Vanden Heuvel continue his stellar field goal kicking with a 30-yard make with 13:38 to go in the second quarter. Just a few minutes later, junior Michael Maxwell hauled in a 16-yard T pass from Ian Fieber as USF built a 17-0 lead. USF took advantage of a decision by the MWSU coaching staff to go for it on 4th and four. The defense for USF stepped up and created a story opportunity.
In the final five minutes of the half, the explosive Mustangs offense answered with a pair of TDs. First, Rabb, who was 23-of-40 for 239 yards and two TDs hit Xavier Land on a five-yard TD pass with 5:10 on the clock. Later, Rabb directed the Mustangs on an 89-yard scoring driving with Tyrique Edwards hauling in a 45-yard TD pass from Rabb with just 27 seconds to play. With a successful conversion, MWSU drew within 17-14 at halftime.
The Mustangs took the lead with 9:17 to play in the third quarter when Adrian Seales scored on a two-yard TD run for a 21-17 advantage. Later in the third quarter, MWSU built the lead to 24-17 when Jaron Imbriani hit a 24-yard field goal following a USF turnover.
USF ended their two quarter scoring drought with an eight-play, 37-yard scoring drive as Vanden Heuvel hit a 35-yard field goal with 6:04 on the clock cut the lead to 24-20.
USF defense forced a stop and with the wind blowing in the face of the MWSU punter, USF was able to get the ball at the Mustangs' 47-yard line. A.J. Garrow caught a 28-yard TD strike from Fieber to the MWSU's 17-yard line. But a short run by Towns and three incomplete passes turned the ball back to MWSU and just 2:40 on the clock. On third and two from their own 28 yard line, Seales was able to get just the distance for a first down and when Rabb ran for 12 yards on another third down from their own territory, the home-standing Mustangs ran out the clock and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
~ Stuart Vanden Heuvel finished the season with 15 consecutive made field goals and 95 points.
~ Dennis Gardeck's 21 TFLs ranks second best in USF's DII era and the third best since 2001.
~ USF's defense set a DII program mark by allowing just 814 rushing yards on 399 attempts in 12 games or 67.8 yards per game. That averages just 2.0 yards per carry. In addition, the Cougars finished with a DII program-best 244.3 yards in total offense.