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FCS Playoffs: Successful season ends abruptly in chilly South Dakota

Special to the Union Leader

December 10. 2017 2:42AM
New Hampshire's Evan Gray (22) gets stood up by South Dakota State's Kellen Soulek (94) at the goaline and stopped on fourth and goal during the second quarter of the Wildcats' 56-14 loss to South Dakota State in the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs Saturday afternoon at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings, S.D. (Jason Salzman/Salzman Studios)

BROOKINGS, S.D. - An impressive playoff run ended for the University of New Hampshire on Saturday, as the unseeded Wildcats were blown out of the quarterfinal round of the FCS tournament by fifth-seeded South Dakota State.

The Jackrabbits of the Missouri Valley Football Conference advanced to the semifinals for the first time in program history with a 56-14 victory at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium, setting them up for a clash with the top-ranked defending national champions of James Madison next weekend.

New Hampshire ends the season at 9-5. The Wildcats were one of the last teams into the playoffs (their 14th consecutive berth) and advanced this far with a pair of impressive wins, but the Jackrabbits proved to be on another level.

"We got our tails beat by a pretty good football team," said UNH coach Sean McDonnell. "We've got some work to do to get into the top echelon of FCS football. You see this type of team and how they play - we've got to regroup and come back and figure out how to get to this spot."

The Wildcats had given South Dakota State (11-2) an extra home game by virtue of last week's upset win at Central Arkansas, but their first trip to the Rushmore State isn't one they'll want to remember. The Jackrabbits scored on each of their first three possessions to take a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter, and after they added a score to make it 28-0, SDSU made a goal-line stand before the half that snuffed out whatever thought of a comeback UNH might've had.

South Dakota State got right to work, taking the opening kickoff and driving 70 yards in six plays, capped off by a 13-yard touchdown run by Jackrabbit quarterback Taryn Christion. SDSU lost All-American tight end and NFL prospect Dallas Goedert to injury on the first play of that drive, and it didn't matter.

The Jacks added a 48-yard touchdown run by Jake Wieneke on an end around, and then a 13-yard run by Isaac Wallace to build the lead to three scores.

Christion then found Wieneke on a 32-yard strike over the middle to make it 28-0, and that's when UNH finally put together a drive. The 'Cats moved 74 yards in 13 plays, but consecutive dive plays on third and fourth down were both stuffed and the Wildcats turned the ball over on downs.

"Personally, yeah, I thought that was big," said Wildcats receiver Kieran Presley, blaming himself for not coming up with a catch in the end zone earlier in the drive. "It would've been great to put a score on the board before half, so that was tough."

It was definitely a crushing blow for the Wildcats, but it probably would not have altered the outcome.

After SDSU pushed the lead to 35-0 on a 48-yard Wallace touchdown run the Wildcats broke up the shutout bid on a 75-yard bomb from Trevor Knight, of Amherst, N.H., to Presley, but if there was any hope that may be the precursor to a miraculous comeback it didn't last long, as Cade Johnson returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards to paydirt to make it 42-7.

Wieneke caught nine passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the Missouri Valley Football Conference all-time leader in catches in the process and moving into second place in FCS history in career touchdown catches with 58.

SDSU rushed for 265 yards and outgained the Wildcats 455-348 overall. UNH was penalized 10 times for 76 yards, punted seven times and was intercepted twice.

Knight threw for 236 yards in the losing cause, while Presley caught seven balls for 133 yards. The Wildcats' defense was paced by Jared Kuehl of Plymouth, N.H., (seven tackles and a sack) and Pop Lacey (seven tackles and two pass breakups).

It's hard for a team that's been to the playoffs 14 years in a row to take solace in just making the postseason, especially when that program is still searching for its first national championship. But after almost getting left out of the playoff field altogether, the Wildcats finished with a run that affirms their tradition.

"It's (a successful season) to an extent," said senior safety D'Andre Drummond-Mayrie. "Obviously, the ultimate goal is a national championship, and we lost. That hurts right now, but there were lots of positives throughout the year. You can't sum up the season based on one game."

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