South Dakota State Preview: #8 Jackrabbits at Northern Iowa
A year ago, South Dakota State went into the final weekend of the regular season fully in control of their destiny, en route to a fourth straight appearance in the FCS Playoffs, only to come up just short in double overtime at Western Illinois.
In 2016, once again the Jackrabbits (7-3/6-1) finish the regular season on the road, this time with an almost certain post season berth already secured, but with some unfinished business nonetheless.
A win at Northern Iowa Saturday would wrap up SDSU's first league title as members of the Missouri Valley Conference. Even if they finish tied atop the standings with North Dakota State (who finishes the season at South Dakota), the Jacks would get the MVFC's automatic qualifying spot in the playoffs, by virtue of their 19-17 win over the Bison in October.
A South Dakota State win is a must if the Jackrabbits are going to try to vault their way into a top eight seed in the playoffs. SDSU currently sits tenth in the latest rankings released this week, and is stuck behind a North Dakota team (#9) that has already wrapped it its regular season, and a Richmond (#8) team that will be heavily favored at William & Mary, Saturday. Current number seven Central Arkansas is the top eight team most likely to lose this weekend, as they travel to #5 Sam Houston State.
Two things working in South Dakota State's favor - the dominance of the Missouri Valley nationally and the Jacks' own strength of schedule. The league currently has three teams in the STATS Top 15, and SDSU's schedule to this point is the fourth toughest in the nation. Those could factor into the committee's decision about just where South Dakota State ends up on selection Sunday this weekend.
They will be squaring off against a Northern Iowa team that has playoff aspirations of their own, after another one of their typical slow starts. The Panthers (5-5/4-3) began the year with an FBS win at Iowa State, but then dropped four of their next five, before mounting a late charge, winning three times n the past four weeks.
UNI is led by a talent-laden defense. Lineman Karter Schult leads the nation in sacks (16) and the MVFC in tackles for loss. Linebacker Jared Farley is in the top ten in the conference in tackles, and the Panthers secondary is the best in the league, with the third most interceptions in all of FCS (17 in 10 games). Four of those interceptions have been returned for touchdowns. Malcom Washington leads the MVFC with four picks in seven games.
They'll be matched up against the nation's eighth-best passing attack. South Dakota State features two of the top receivers in FCS, Dallas Goedert and Jake Wieneke, and the nation's sixth-best passer, Taryn Christion.
The Jackrabbit defense will be trying top stop a different UNI quarterback this season. Sophomore Eli Dunne has started three of the last four games in place of injured starter Aaron Bailey. With Dunne in charge, the Panthers are completing about ten passes per game more than when Bailey was in there. Seven different receivers caught passes last week against Western Illinois.
Running back Michael Malloy has scored seven times in the last three games.
Kickoff is 4:00 PM, Saturday, in Cedar Falls.
Against South Dakota last weekend, the Jackrabbits relied on the running game after the Coyotes' defense keyed on stopping the SDSU passing attack.
Running backs Brady Mengarelli (161 yards) and Isaac Wallace (102 yards) took advantage of great blocking up front, all part of a 415 yard rushing day for the offense.
But despite out gaining USD 630 yards to 353 yards in total offense, the Jacks turned the ball over twice and missed two field goals, and were tied at 21 in the fourth quarter.
They got a break when Coyotes place kicker Miles Bergner missed a potential go-ahead 32-yard field goal and took advantage when Christion scored on the ensuing drive to put SDSU up 28-21.
The Jackrabbit defense sealed the seven-point win in the final minute when Dallas Brown picked off Chris Streveler at the SDSU 39.
I talked with SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier about the win over the Coyotes and Saturday's game with Northern Iowa: