Football falls in Fargo again

Justin Priest’s spectacular grab in the end zone against Northern Arizona put the senior wide receiver on SportsCenter that night. The catch was the highlight of a 41-10 USD win. Photo courtesy of Anna Bradley/USD Athletics

For the second year in a row, Toreros’ playoff run ended by FCS juggernaut North Dakota State
Eric Boose | Contributor | The USD Vista
Last Saturday’s Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoff game featured a familiar opponent, and yielded a familiar result. For the second year in a row, the North Dakota State Bison eliminated the University of San Diego from the playoffs in the second round. NDSU won this year’s game by a score of 38-3, only a slightly slimmer margin than last year’s 45-7 defeat.
The defeat was nothing short of expectations. The second-seeded Bison were 27-point favorites entering the game against the unseeded Toreros. The Bison dominated all four quarters, allowing only 174 yards and forcing three turnovers. Offensively, North Dakota State amassed 472 yards thanks to a handful of big plays from their backfield. Meanwhile, San Diego’s only points came from Patrick Murray’s 48-yard field goal in the fourth quarter – a career long for the senior from Phoenix, AZ.
The Bison seemed unstoppable early in the game, producing an 82-yard touchdown drive on their first offensive possession. Bison quarterback Easton Stick found receiver Seth Wilson over the middle for a 19-yard score to put the hosts up 7-0. After a three-and-out from the Toreros, the Bison doubled their lead as Stick dashed 51 yards to the end zone with help from a possible holding penalty by a Bison receiver. On their next drive, San Diego fumbled the ball away, but the defense held North Dakota State to a field goal.

Record-breaking defensive end Jonathan Petersen (95) celebrates his third sack of the day against the Bison. Photo courtesy of Darren Gibbins/USD Athletics

After Bison kicker Cam Pedersen’s field goal with just over 14 minutes left in the second quarter, the Torero defense refused to let the Bison score again before halftime. Senior defensive end Jonathan Petersen opened the second quarter with a sack on third down, his first of three on the day.
After another San Diego punt, Petersen wrote his name in the history books. Petersen entered the game two sacks away from the all-time FCS record, and on a second-and-one from USD’s 35-yard line, the senior pass rusher sacked Stick and forced a fumble, which Kim Mahoney recovered for the Toreros. Petersen added a third sack later in the second quarter to put an exclamation point on his record-setting performance.
He finished his career as a Torero with 44 total sacks, topping the old record of 42.5 sacks set by current Oakland Raiders linebacker James Cowser, who played for Southern Utah from 2012-15.
With the Bison only leading by 17 at halftime and the Torero defense playing well, it seemed like San Diego had a chance to pull off the upset. However, the Bison came out of the locker room and hung 21 points on the Toreros in the third quarter, putting the game out of reach. Murray’s fourth-quarter field goal came after the Toreros’ first trip inside the North Dakota State 20-yard line, but had little value other than denying the Bison a shutout.
Although the score might not suggest it, the Toreros deserved some credit for their performance in the Fargodome. In a post-game interview with ESPN, North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman avoided describing the game as a rout. Instead, Klieman used the phrase “escape and move on” to describe his team’s victory over USD.
USD head coach Dale Lindsey, meanwhile, acknowledged the dominance of the Bison over the years.
“They’ve always had monster-sized guys up front,” Lindsey said.  “This is the Alabama of the FCS [a reference to the University of Alabama football team, a perennial national title contender].”
Despite the loss, USD had plenty to smile about at the end of this playoff run. Three players had personal highlights during the Toreros’ 2017 postseason run – Petersen’s sack record, Murray’s career-best field goal, and senior receiver Justin Priest’s diving catch against Northern Arizona in the the team’s first-round game – a play that made the SportsCenter Top 10.

North Dakota State’s defense flexed its muscles against the Toreros all afternoon. Photo courtesy of Darren Gibbins/USD Athletics

In fact, the entire team can be proud of their performance against a very good Northern Arizona (NAU) team, the win which sent them back to Fargo. The Toreros visited Flagstaff on Nov. 25, and came away with a 41-10 win, the school’s largest margin of victory ever in the playoffs.
The Torero defense dominated early, allowing negative (yes, negative) 29 yards in the first quarter. The defense forced three turnovers and allowed only 238 yards on 61 plays, an average of 3.9 yards per play.
The Toreros came into the game surrounded by questions of not only their ability to compete, but their ability to do it at 7,000 feet above sea level. The offense answered those questions by doing what they had done every week during the regular season – scoring. Junior quarterback Anthony Lawrence put up 228 yards and three touchdowns on just 16 completions, with no interceptions. Senior tight end Ross Dwelley was on the receiving end of two touchdowns, but it was Justin Priest who stole the show.
With the Toreros leading only 3-0 early, Priest made a spectacular one-handed touchdown grab in the corner of the end zone to make it a two-possession game. The catch also put Priest and the Toreros in the national spotlight. The fully horizontal, Odell Beckham-style catch earned a spot on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays, as well as a shout-out from former NFL receiver Randy Moss.
Aside from a nervous part of the second quarter where NAU started to crawl back into the game, the Toreros dominated after Priest’s catch.
The win over the Lumberjacks, only USD’s second ever playoff win, sent the message that the scholarship-free Toreros were ready to compete with the FCS’ top teams. Currently, the win in Flagstaff stands as the Toreros’ best playoff performance.
“We prepare every week to play 60 minutes of football and you can’t ask any more than what these guys did today,” Lindsey said after the Northern Arizona game. “Our goal every week is to be as physical as we can be for 60 minutes, establish the running game which helps with our passing game, and defensively out-hit you and not give up the explosive play. If we can do that we feel we have a good chance to win the game.”
Petersen, a defensive captain, was equally complimentary of San Diego’s performance, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
“That was the best 11-man effort I have been a part of in my four years here,” Petersen said. “From the top down, to the corners to the D-line, everyone played really well. We knew our offense was going to be able to put up points. We knew if we could hold them under 20 points that we would have a good shot of winning, and that’s what we did.”
The Toreros will look to make a third straight playoff appearance again next season, but they will have to do it without many key players. Quarterback Anthony Lawrence will return next season, but Justin Priest, Ross Dwelley, and Jonathan Petersen have all played their final game as Toreros.
Priest, Dwelley, and Petersen’s senior class finishes their USD careers with an overall record of 38-10 and a 21-game Pioneer Football League win streak, four straight PFL championships, and USD’s only three trips to the FCS playoffs, including the school’s only two playoff wins.
Despite the absence of those key players, the Toreros are likely favorites to win the PFL again next year, meaning another trip to the playoffs could be on the horizon. But Toreros can only hope they will avoid North Dakota State the next time around.