Walter Payton Award candidate Zach Zenner rushed for a school-record 295 yards and a career-best three touchdowns, pacing 19th-ranked South Dakota State to a 58-10 victory over No. 25 Eastern Illinois in opening-round action of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs Saturday afternoon at Coughlin-Alumni Stadium.
In recording their first-ever playoff victory, the Jackrabbits improved to 9-3 overall. SDSU will travel to top-seeded North Dakota State next Saturday (Dec. 1) for a 3 p.m. contest at the Fargodome. Eastern Illinois, the champion of the Ohio Valley Conference, ended its season 7-5 overall.
After being forced to punt on their first three drives, the Jackrabbits broke into the scoring column late in the first quarter as Zenner broke through the defense for a 68-yard touchdown run.
Moments later, Winston Wright intercepted a Jimmy Garoppolo pass and returned the ball 20 yards to the EIU 22. Justin Syrovatka connected on a 22-yard field goal to push the Jackrabbit lead to 10-0 with 2:25 remaining in the opening quarter.
The Panthers moved the ball deep into Jackrabbit territory on a drive that bridged the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second. The 13-play, 66-yard drive stalled at the 2-yard line and EIU had to settle for a 19-yard field goal by Cameron Berra.
From there it was all Jackrabbits, who made it scores in six consecutive drives by scoring on all four second-quarter possessions. Zenner scored on runs of 4 and 7 yards before Syrovatka kicked a 29-yard field goal with a minute remaining to push the SDSU lead to 27-3.
The Jackrabbit special teams unit got in the act seconds later as Andrew Brown blocked an Eastern Illinois punt that eventually led to SDSU taking over at the Panther 3-yard line with nine seconds remaining. A delay of game penalty pushed the Jackrabbits back to the 8, but Austin Sumner connected with Cam Jones in the back of the end zone on the final play of the half to increase the Jackrabbit lead to 34-3.
Zenner rushed 24 times for 246 yards in the first half and the Jackrabbits continued to churn out yards on the ground in the second half.
Syrovatka's third field goal of the day, a 28-yarder, accounted for the only points of the third quarter.
The landslide continued in the final quarter with SDSU scoring touchdowns on three consecutive possessions. Reserve running back Reginald Gandy scored on runs of 1 and 12 yards and Jones added a 5-yard run.
Eastern Illinois' lone touchdown came with 10:39 to play as Jake Walker scored on a 4-yard run.
As a team, the Jackrabbits ran for 434 yards on 53 attempts - an average of 8.2 yards per carry. Zenner's 295 yards came on 33 carries. Gandy also finished with a career high, rushing 16 times for 151 yards.
Sumner finished the afternoon 13-of-28 passing for 146 yards and a touchdown. Aaron Rollin led Jackrabbit receivers with five catches for 44 yards.
Overall, SDSU held a 580-366 advantage in total offense.
Garoppolo ended the afternoon 25-of-41 passing for 221 yards. Fellow Walter Payton Award candidate Erik Lora led all players with 12 receptions for 133 yards. Walker finished the day with 125 yards rushing on 23 carries.
Senior defensive lineman Andy Mink recorded a game-high eight tackles and forced a fumble to lead the Jackrabbit defense.
NOTES: Saturday's game was the first-ever meeting between South Dakota State and Eastern Illinois ... the Jackrabbits also faced an Ohio Valley Conference opponent for the first time ... SDSU improved to 1-1 in FCS playoff games and 1-2 in NCAA playoff games ... the previous Jackrabbit single-game rushing record was 291 yards on 41 carries against St. Cloud State (Minn.) on Nov. 13, 1999 ... Zenner's previous career high was 278 yards on 34 carries at Southeastern Louisiana on Sept. 8 ... Zenner crossed the 100-yard mark for the ninth time this season and the 200-yard plateau for the third time ... Zenner finished the day second on the Jackrabbit single-season rushing charts with 1,998 yards and eighth in career rushing with 2,468 yards, passing Rick Wegher (2,293 yards from 1984-84) ... Rollin moved into seventh place in career receiving yards with 1,829, passing both Mike Ethier (1,816 yards from 1981-83) and Mike Myers (1,818 from 1990-93) ... SDSU notched its first nine-win season since 1979, when the Jackrabbits made their lone appearance in the NCAA Division II playoffs ... the Jackrabbits improved to 6-0 at home this season ... a moment of silence was held prior to the game in memory of former head coach Wayne Haensel (1982-90), who passed away Thursday at the age of 76 ... attendance was 4,367