LINCOLN, Neb. — For a quarter and a half, South Dakota State looked the part of an underdog primed for an upset.
The next two and a half quarters belonged to the team expected to win.
It was that final stretch that doomed the visiting Jackrabbits, as the hometown Huskers overcame a sluggish start to throttle SDSU 59-20 on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.
The score said it all.
“Very disappointed for our guys to not come down and play a better game,” summed up SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier.
The sixth-ranked Jackrabbits scored on their first three drives to take an early 17-14 lead, stunning another sellout crowd of 90,614 — including a large contingent in blue and yellow threads. SDSU, though, didn’t get points until the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, Nebraska (3-1) reeled off 38 straight points to take control.
“To go down and do that right away was nice, but obviously we didn’t score enough points to win, or even close,” said SDSU junior running back Zach Zenner, who rushed for 202 yards and two touchdowns — all through three quarters.
“We need to continue that thoughout the whole game,” he added.
In a contest that saw a combined 1,110 yards of total offense, the Huskers totaled at least 300 rushing and 300 passing yards in a game for the first time in school history.
The Jacks, for their part mustered 465 yards of offense, but were hampered by mistakes on both sides of the ball.
“We never stopped them on defense,” Stiegelmeier said. “I don’t know how many games you win if you can’t stop a team on defense.
“We did go ahead, and I was proud of our team that we didnt hang our heads; we didn’t get giddy. But we didn’t respond defensively when we needed to.”
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini also wasn’t exactly thrilled with his defense.
“They didn’t do anything fancy,” Pelini said after the game. “They didn’t have to. When you don’t line up right, they didn’t need to do anything fancy.
“It wasn’t anything magical that they did.”
And Nebraska, with starting quarterback Taylor Martinez out with an injury, had its best offensive output of the season — all with back-up quarterbacks. Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg combined to complete 20-of-24 passes for 305 and two touchdowns, with zero interceptions.
Asked if not having Martinez play had an impact, Stiegelmeier emphatically replied, no.
Said SDSU linebacker R.C. Kilgore, who had a pair of fumble recoveries, “The quarterbacks were very similar to Martinez, same athletic ability, so nothing really changed for us.”
From the opening kickoff, both offenses took control. Each team scored on their first two drives, SDSU getting a pair of touchdown runs from Zenner.
Nebraska fumbled on the second play of its ensuing drive, and SDSU turned the takeaway into points. Justin Syrovatka booted a 48-yard field goal — his 15th straight — to put the Jacks up 17-14.
That’s when the floodgates opened.
Nine plays later, the Huskers regained the lead, at 21-17 on a 1-yard scoring run by Ameer Abdullah. Following an SDSU punt, Nebraska scored again on a 16-yard pass from Armstrong to Sam Burtch at the 7:10 mark.
Suddenly, the Huskers were up 28-17. And it was soon to reach 35-17.
Nebraska picked off Austin Sumner — SDSU’s first offensive turnover of the season — and the Huskers needed two plays to reach the endzone.
The Huskers went into halftime with a 38-17 cushion, following a 22-yard field goal on the final play.
“We started shooting ourselves in the foot a little bit,” Zenner said matter-of-factly.
Nebraska kept rolling, getting a touchdown on its second drive of the third quarter to make the score 45-17.
Sumner was intercepted again but Huskers’ lineman Randy Gregory returned it 33 yards for a touchdown at the 2:47 mark. The Jacks snapped the 38-point surge by Nebraska on a 29-yard field goal with 12:58 remaining, getting within 52-20.
Nebraska’s lead reached 59-20 after a 5-yard touchdown run at the 9:15 mark.
By that point, the outcome was all but official, though the Jacks never let up, Kilgore said.
“We go into every week planning to do our best, just didn’t get it done today,” he said.
With the necessary evil of an FBS paycheck game out of the way, the Jackrabbits begin Missouri Valley Football Conference next Saturday.
Awaiting SDSU? Two-time defending national champion North Dakota State, which will come to Brookings.
For now, the Jackrabbits don’t plan to spend much time on Saturday’s performance.
“I asked them to spend 20 minutes on it, to think about their part of the game,” Stiegelmeier said. “I don’t want them to hang their head, I want them to be mature about it.
He later added. “Our goal was to win the game, and we didn’t come close to that.”