The best season in program history at the NCAA DII level ended for the #4 University of Sioux Falls Football Team (12-1) in heartbreaking fashion as #5 Harding (13-0) converted two late field goals to escape with a 27-24 overtime victory at Bob Young Field.
For the Cougars, which won the NSIC Crown and was the 12th team ever at USF to compete the regular season unbeaten, the loss ended a 12-game winning streak, the program's longest in the DII era.
Harding advances to the quarterfinals of the DII playoffs where they will face top-seeded Northwest Missouri State (12-0) at Maryville on Saturday, Dec. 3.
The Cougars led 3-0 early, trailed 14-10 at halftime, opened up a 24-14 second half lead before Harding rallied with a pair of field goals from Tristan Parsley, including a 35-yard conversion in overtime to pick up the win.
"We just came up a little bit short," said USF head coach Jed Stugart. "But I have to tell you I am exceptionally proud of this team for all they accomplished this season," he said. "We are a family here and we stand together. It is a belief system and culture. We had great leadership from our senior class and they make me very proud," added Stugart, whose team finished a 23rd consecutive winning season, which is the fifth best total across all divisions of football.
"Also, I have to really give Harding credit as they are a talented football team and wish them well," said Stugart, whose team became the program's first squad to win a playoff game and host two straight postseason contests.
With the loss, USF's unbeaten string in playoff games at Bob Young Field ended today as the program is now 13-1. USF, which made its second appearance in the DII playoffs in just five years at the level, is now 1-2 in DII playoff games and 38-14 in postseason play all-time.
Leading the way for USF was senior quarterback Luke Papilion who completed 15-of-21 passes for 174 yards with two TD passes and a TD run in his final collegiate game. Papilion, who had eight carries for 23 yards, finished with 197 yards in total offense and finished his career with a school record 12,489 total yards. He also finished with 3,383 yards rushing and 9,103 yards passing, finishing as just the second player in NSIC history to have both 9K passing and 3K rushing. Papilion fell just short of 1,000 yards rushing, setting a school mark for quarterbacks with 987 yards.
Junior running back Max Mickey had 12 carries for 50 yards as he set USF's all-time season record for rushing with 204 carries for 1,764 yards and 19 TDs. Mickey, who finished with a DII-leading 8.6 yards per carry, passed the mark of USF Sports Hall of Fame running back David Ruter, who had 1,726 yards in 1996. Also Mickey finished the season eighth on USF's career rushing chart with 2,783 yards.
Also for USF, senior wide receiver Josh Angulo had six receptions for 64 yards as he finished with 213 (3rd all-time at USF) receptions for 2,885 yards (5th all-time at USF) and 29 TDs (5th all-time at USF). Another senior Brady Rose had six catches for 41 yards and a TD while adding seven carries for 45 yards. He finished with 191 catches (sixth all-time at USF) for 2,431 yards (6th all-time at USF) and 20 TDs, (9th all-time).
In total, 26 seniors played their final game for the Cougars, including all-NSIC linebacker Michael Mehling, who had a career-best 14 tackles as he finished with 127 tackles, 15 TFLs, 5.5 sacks and an interception this season. Mehling's 127 tackles ranks second all-time for a season at USF (Jerry Muston, 130, 1989). Also reaching double digits in tackles was senior Nathan Lucs, who had a career best 11 tackles. Meanwhile, Josh Butler had eight tackles and Delvin Batiste had six tackles and an interception, which was the first committed by Harding this season.
Overall, the Cougars generated 306 yards on 54 plays against the top defense in DII. The Cougars had 174 yards passing but a season-low 132 yards on 33 carries rushing. However that rushing total nearly doubled what Harding had allowed per game this year (68.0 yards per game). Of note, the Cougars completed the season with a school record 4,005 rushing yards on 582 carries for 6.9 per carry and a school-record 308.1 yards per game. The Cougars also finished with a D2-program-best 6,647 yards or 511.3 per game, also a D2-best for the program.
Early on the Cougars jumped to a lead when Brett Garner hit a 29-yard field goal with 11:46 to play in the first quarter. The score was set up by a 51-yard kickoff return by junior kick returner Kyle Groeneweg. After moving the ball inside the HU 15-yard line, the Cougars took the lead on Garner's kick.
The Bisons took the lead back when Park Parish, who rushed for a game-high 121 yards on 25 carries with two TDs, had a two-yard scoring run with 11:36 to play in the second quarter. Parish's score capped an 11-play, 92-yard scoring drive that took 5:31 off the clock.
Using a short field, the Cougars answered when Papilion scored his 17th TD of the season and 44th TD of his career on a three-yard run with 3:07 to play in the second quarter. The score capped a seven play, 43-yard scoring drive that took 3:02 off the clock.
But the Bisons answered just before the halftime break. With 16 seconds, Luke Bowser caught a three-yard TD pass from Parish, who had 49 yards passing on the day. With the TD, Harding to a 14-10 lead to halftime.
USF grabbed the lead back at 17-14 in the third quarter as the Cougars put together a seven-play, 92-yard scoring drive in 2:51 as Papilion connected with Rose on a 12-yard TD strike. The big play on the drive was a 44-yard throw by Papilion to senior Erik Albeck.
In the fourth quarter, the Cougars built a 10-point lead at 24-14 when Papilion connected with Groeneweg on a 28-yard TD pass. It would be Papilion's final collegiate TD as he finished with 79 for his career, second on USF's all-time list.
Harding rallied as Parish, who was the GAC Offensive Player of the Year, finished off a 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive at the 4:17 mark with a one-yard TD run to cut USF's lead to 24-21.
On the ensuing possession, USF was able to run a little time off the clock before punting the ball to Harding. The Bisons would drive the 57 yards in eight plays, using 51 seconds off the clock, to tie the game on Tristan Parsley's 47-yard field goal with just six seconds to play.
In overtime the Cougars committed a turnover and Harding ran three plays to set up Parsley for his game-winning 35-yard field goal.