BROOKINGS — Dirk Kool broke up a potential game-winning two-point attempt with two seconds remaining, helping South Dakota State hold on for a 29-28 victory in the football season opener for both teams Saturday night at Coughlin-Alumni Stadium.
The Jackrabbits led 29-7 entering the fourth quarter, but two turnovers in the fourth quarter led to two Southern Utah touchdowns. Erron Vonner picked off a Thomas O'Brien pass and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown with nine minutes and 10 seconds remaining to pull the Thunderbirds within 29-22.
After SDSU's Winston Wright intercepted a pass on the Thunderbirds' next possession with 1:56 to play, the Jackrabbits appeared on the verge of running out the clock. With the ball at the SUU 23, Tyrel Kool was stripped of the ball and Blake Fenn recovered at the Thunderbird 34.
Behind quarterback Brad Sorensen, the Thunderbirds marched down the field, converting a fourth-and-10 play near midfield to extend the drive. Sorensen capped a 12-play, 66-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Jared Ursua - his second touchdown of the game - with two seconds left on the clock. Rather than play for overtime by kicking the extra point, SUU opted to try to win the game in regulation, but Sorensen's pass for Daryl Brown on a slant to the end zone was broken up by Dirk Kool.
SUU took an early lead, putting together an 11-play, 75-yard drive late in the first quarter that ended with Brown scoring on a 25-yard pass across the middle from Sorensen.
The Jackrabbits began to gain the momentum in the second quarter, putting together a 12-play, 82-yard drive that ended with a 31-yard field goal by Kyle Harris. After forcing a three-and-out on SUU's next possession, the Jackrabbits grabbed the lead for good as O'Brien connected with Aaron Rollin on the right side of the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown. The extra point was missed, but SDSU carried a 9-7 lead into halftime.
SDSU dominated the third quarter on both sides of the ball as it scored three times to build a 29-7 lead. After an interception by Chris Tracy gave the Jackrabbits the ball at the SUU 40, Tyrel Kool capped a six-play drive by scoring from four yards out on a swing pass from O'Brien.
Ross Shafrath got in the act as he intercepted a Sorensen pass on the Thunderbirds next play from scrimmage to give SDSU the ball at the SUU 23. O'Brien connected with Trevor Tiefenthaler for gains of six and 11 yards on the first two plays of the drive before finding a wide-open Kyle Sheehan in the left flat for a 3-yard touchdown to put the Jackrabbits ahead 23-7.
After holding SUU on a fourth-down play in its own territory, SDSU again took advantage of great field position to seemingly put the game out of reach. On the final play of the third quarter, backup running back Zach Zenner scored on a 27-yard for what would be the final Jackrabbit points of the night. The two-point conversion failed.
Southern Utah began its comeback on its first possession of the fourth quarter, stringing together a nine-play, 82 yard drive that ended on a 37-yard scoring strike from Sorensen to Ursua.
A candidate for the Walter Payton Award as the top offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision, Sorensen finished the night 31-of-46 for 340 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. Ursua tallied nine catches for 129 yards to lead Thunderbird receivers.
SDSU held the Southern Utah ground game in check, allowing only 53 net yards rushing. Deckar Alexander led the Thunderbirds with 42 yards on eight carries. The Jackrabbit defense recorded four sacks in the game, including two by Doug Peete and 1.5 by Jake Steffen.
The Jackrabbit offense was led by Tyrel Kool, who gained 107 yards on 28 carries in first career start at running back. O'Brien was 27-of-40 passing for 279 yards and tied a career-high with three touchdowns. A converted wide receiver, Kool led Jackrabbit pass-catchers with six receptions for 79 yards, with Rollin adding six catches for 48 yards.
One of four senior captains, Dirk Kool paced the Jackrabbit defense with 10 tackles. Chad Hansen led all players with 12 stops and forced a fumble for Southern Utah.
SDSU is on the road for the next three weeks and will start its road swing next Saturday (Sept. 10) at Illinois. Kickoff is slated for 11 a.m., with television coverage on the Big Ten Network.
NOTES: SDSU leads the all-time series, 4-1 ... Saturday's game was the 16th Annual Cereal Bowl and drew a crowd of 10,113 ... SDSU improved to 12-4 in Cereal Bowl games ... the Jackrabbits held a 416-393 advantage in total offense ... the Jackrabbits have had a 100-yard rusher in 10 of their last 11 games dating back to the 2010 season, with Tyrel Kool the third different back to eclipse the century mark in that span (Kyle Minnet eight times, Tyler Duffy once) ... O'Brien moved into ninth place in career passing yards with 3,963, passing both Bill Perron (3,747 yards from 1994-96) and Noel Bouché (3,947 yards from 1996-98) Saturday night ... former Jackrabbit basketball player Dale Moss saw action at wide receiver but did not catch a pass ... SDSU opened its 50th season of football at Coughlin-Alumni Stadium, improving to 162-99 on its home field ... the Jackrabbits improved to 10-5 in season openers under head coach John Stiegelmeier