CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (GoJacks.com) – Freshman quarterback Mark Gronowski threw for two touchdowns in his collegiate debut, including the game-winning 1-yard pass to Pierre Strong, Jr., with 19 seconds remaining as fifth-ranked South Dakota State recovered late for a 24-20 season-opening win Friday night at third-ranked Northern Iowa.
A native of Naperville, Illinois, Gronowski led the Jackrabbits on a 10-play, 75-yard game-winning drive that consumed more than five minutes. SDSU, which had not picked up first down in its five previous second-half drives, moved the chains three times before the decisive score, the last coming on a 43-yard pass from Gronowski to tight end Zach Heins down the left sideline to the UNI 3.
After a pair of Strong rushes moved the ball to the 1, the Jackrabbit running back slipped across the formation to the right flat and hauled in the pass from Gronowski for a 23-20 SDSU lead. Cole Frahm added the extra point to force the Panthers to drive the length of the field, but the last-ditch drive by UNI failed to get past the Panthers’ own 40.
UNI grabbed a 20-17 lead by scoring the first 13 points of the second half. Matthew Cook booted a 43-yard field goal in the third quarter and added a 35-yarder with 8:35 to play in regulation. Moments later, the Panthers cashed in on SDSU’s second lost fumble of the game on a strip sack of Gronowski that was recovered at the SDSU 19. Two plays later, Panther quarterback Will McElvain connected with Tysen Kershaw on a 14-yard touchdown.
SDSU statistically dominated the first half in building a 17-7 lead at intermission. The Jackrabbits marched 71 yards on eight plays on the game’s opening drive before settling for a 24-yard field goal by Frahm.
UNI took its first lead later in the first quarter on a 7-yard touchdown run by McElvain, capping a seven-play, 52-yard drive. McElvain completed 19-of-29 attempts for 164 yards, with Quan Hampton hauling in a game-high seven catches for 45 yards.
Gronowski accounted for a pair of touchdowns in three-plus minute span late in the first half. First, he hooked up with Jaxon Janke for a 6-yard touchdown, then he used his legs to score on a 5-yard run with 1 minute and 24 seconds remaining in the opening half. His rushing touchdown was set up by a blocked punt by newcomer Isaiah Stalbird that gave SDSU the ball at the Panther 5.
Gronowski also finished the night 19-for-29 passing for 194 yards and added 24 rushing yards on 10 carries. Strong tallied 91 yards on 22 rushing attempts and led SDSU with six receptions, including the game-winner, for 31 yards. Heins added five catches for a team-high 90 receiving yards.
SDSU finished with a 310-192 advantage in total offense, with UNI limited to only 28 net yards on the ground in 25 attempts. Linebackers Logan Backhaus, Adam Bock and Preston Tetzlaff, along with cornerback Don Gardner, each registered five tackles to lead the Jackrabbits. Two of Backhaus’ tackles were for loss.
Korby Sander of UNI led all players with 13 tackles.
The Jackrabbits will travel to Missouri Valley Football Conference newcomer North Dakota on Feb. 27. Kickoff is set for noon at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, North Dakota.