SIOUX FALLS – Despite a commanding advantage in total yards, No. 13 University of Sioux Falls Football (9-2, 9-2 NSIC) dropped a heartbreaking 27-23 decision to No. 1 Minnesota State (11-0, 11-0 NSIC) in the regular season finale on Saturday before 2,122 in attendance at Bob Young Field.
MSU rallied in the fourth quarter, putting up a 14-3 advantage on a pair of Shane Zylstra touchdown receptions, to earn their 11th straight victory and capture the NSIC title outright. USF, which led 23-13 with five minutes to play, dropped to 9-2 and sit in third place overall in the NSIC standings.
For the fourth straight season USF has won nine games at the NCAA DII level. On Sunday at 4 p.m. on NCAA.com, the Cougars, which were 5th in the most recent Super Region 4 rankings, will find out its playoff fate.
"Our guys battled one of the top teams in the league toe-to-toe," said USF Head Coach Jon Anderson, whose team dominated the line of scrimmage with a 390 yards to 270 yards advantage. "They just made a couple of more plays than we did. But make no mistake, we played hard and did some really good things today," added Anderson, who had 21 seniors play their final regular season game of their USF careers.
The USF defense, coordinated by Nick Benedetto, ranks No. 2 team nationally in total defense at 230.5 yards per game, and was rock solid against MSU. The Mavericks came in with the league's top marks in scoring (43.5 ppg), total offense (502.3 yards per game) and rushing (312.0). And, the Cougars held MSU to just 270 yards in total offense on 59 plays. The Mavericks rushing attack was held to just 89 yards on 37 carries. By holding MSU's top-ranked rushing attack in check, USF's dominating rush defense held its fifth straight opponent to less than 100 yards. In fact, the Cougars have allowed over 100 yards to just two opponents (Mary, 104; Winona State, 204).
"This defense comes to play every day," said Anderson. "They proved again that they are one of the nation's top units by holding down an explosive team in MSU."
The defense, which led the league in sacks, came up with six against MSU for 33 yards in losses. It was the second time this season (Minnesota-Duluth, 8 sacks) that the Cougars recorded six or more sacks in a game. This is the third straight season that USF has recorded 39 or more sacks in a season. The 39 sacks is tied with the 2015 unit for second most in the DII era (2016, 42 sacks).
Senior linebacker Michael Atonio, who leads USF with 67 tackles this season, had another strong game for the Cougars. He had two sacks and five tackles. Senior defensive back Austin Schaffer had a career-best 10 tackles, including nine solo stops. Kyle Campiotti, Steve McKee, Dennis Gardeck and Derek Landis were in on sacks.
The Cougars' offense, directed by offense coordinator Jim Chapin, was minus two starters (All American Max Mickey and starting wide receiver Antonio Holmes) but arguably its best performance of the season. USF produced 390 yards against the league's number two-ranked defense.
Led by senior running back Jason Towns, who had a career-high 37 carries for 136 yards, USF produced 135 rushing yards on 44 carries. Towns, who now has 862 rushing yards on 191 carries, recorded his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season.
USF Quarterback Ian Fieber had a solid day by completing 17-of-29 passes for 255 yards, two TDs and two interceptions. Fieber's 255 yards was his second best total of the season (256 vs. Winona State). For the second straight week, freshman wide receiver Ty Smith had a big game, hauling in five catches for 110 yards and a TD. Smith has had 100 yards receiving in back-to-back weeks.
Game Breakdown – Cougars score first
Defense on both sides controlled the early action. The Cougars broke through first as Stuart Vanden Heuvel, who made three field goals on the day, knocked in a 26-yard field goal with 5:14 left in the first quarter for a 3-0 lead. MSU bounced back as Casey Bednarski connected on a 39-yard field goal (1:17, 1st quarter) and a 27-yarder with 8:52 to play in the second quarter for a 6-3 lead.
Late in the first half, USF's offense put the first TD of the game on the board. With 5:07 to play, Michael Maxwell hauled in a six-yard TD pass from Fieber on third-and-goal to give USF a 10-6 lead. The USF scoring drive covered 82 yards on eight plays and used 3:38 of the clock. MSU took advantage of a USF penalty late in the half to take the lead. Ryan Schlichte, who was 10-of-17 for 147 yards and three TDs, connected with Nyles Williams on a 32-yard TD pass with 52 seconds to play in the half.
The Cougars dominated play in the third quarter, outscoring MSU, 10-0. USF retook the lead on a Fieber to Smith 25-yard TD strike at the 8:44 mark. On the scoring drive, USF moved the ball 67 yards on eight plays and used 3:18 off the clock. Later in the quarter (4:41), the Cougars took a 20-13 lead as Vanden Heuvel connected on a 35-yard field goal following a Maverick turnover at their own 24-yard line.
USF, which had a 33:20 to 26:40 advantage in time of possession, added to the lead with a 16-play, 73-yard drive midway through the fourth quarter that was culminated with a 32-yard field goal by Vanden Heuvel at the 7:39 mark. It was Vanden Heuvel's 11th straight made field goal.
In the final five minutes, MSU rallied behind the play of Schlichte and Zylstra, who had five catches for 102 yards and two TDs. With 5:15 to go in the third quarter, Schlichte connected with Zylstra on a 61-yard TD strike on third down. With the score, MSU cut the deficit to 23-20. The Mavericks' final score came following a USF miscue with 1:43 to play as the punt snap hit a blocker and gave MSU possession at the USF 29-yard line. Four plays later, Zylstra caught a 10-yard TD pass from Schlichte.
With under a minute to play, the Cougars tried to rally. The offense was able to reach midfield before Fieber's pass was picked off by Jack Curtis with 15 seconds on the clock.
~ USF finished the regular season, holding 11 opponents to less than 700 total rushing yards (696). Opponents have averaged just 1.9 yards per play. MSU was able to generate just 2.4 yards per play today.
~ This season, the Cougars have allowed just five rushing TDs, including none to the Mavericks.
~ In total yards, USF will stay among the top three nationally at 234.1 yards per game. The Cougars have allowed just 2,575 yards in 11 games.
~ On offense, USF has again cracked 4,000 total yards with 4,219 through 11 games. The Cougars have averaged 383.5 yards per game in total offense.
~ Individually, Jason Towns has 862 rushing yards and cracked 1,000 (1,129) for his career. The senior from Harvey, Ill., is 11 behind All-American Max Mickey, who had 873 yards in five games before being injured. Towns has averaged 78.4 yards per game while Mickey averaged 174.6 yards per game.