College football: SDSU Jackrabbits turn page to conference play after interesting non-conference slate

South Dakota State’s Mark Gronowski throws during a game against Drake at Target Field in Minneapolis on Saturday. (Andrew Holtan/Brookings Register)

South Dakota State football completed its non-conference portion of its schedule on Saturday in dominating fashion as the Jackrabbits beat Drake 70-7 at Target Field in Minneapolis.

The blow out win ended what was a non-traditional non-conference slate for the Jacks. Since joining the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2004, this was just the fourth time that the Jacks did not have a game against an FBS school.

That meant the Jacks opened up the season against Division II Western Oregon. The game was built up as a chance to celebrate last year’s national championship and celebrate the career of long-time coach John Stiegelmeier after he retired after the championship game in January.

SDSU’s second game of the season was against No. 3 Montana State and it felt like a playoff game with the hype built around it after the two teams had met in the semifinals the two previous seasons.

Saturday was used as a celebration of the national championship as well as it allowed Jacks fans to gather at a place away from Brookings and show the football world what kind of fan base they had. The unique circumstances of playing on a baseball field capped off what was an odd three-game start to the season.

Heading into the season, many thought that it would take the Jacks a few games to fully put the national championship behind them. On Saturday, senior linebacker Saiveon Williamson said he and his teammates put it behind them a long time ago.

“Personally, I think as players we have moved on. I know we woke up the next day after the national championship and it didn’t feel like we won it all. It was like, it feels good in the moment, but it’s fleeting. We just know that we have to keep focusing on ourselves and keep doing our best each week. If we just keep handling our own business and taking care of the stuff we have to, the rest will take care of itself,” he said.

SDSU is 3-0 as it enters its bye week and conference play. The bye week will come at a good time as the Jacks have been playing without senior linebacker Adam Bock and senior wide receiver Jadon Janke. Last season, SDSU didn’t have its bye week until the final week of the regular season and that caused the Jacks to play through injuries throughout the season.

As far as the players that have been playing, they picked up right where they left off last season, being one of the best in the country on the stat sheet.

SDSU has the third highest scoring offense, averaging 45 points per game and is second in scoring defense, giving up just 10 points per game. SDSU is second in third down conversions on the season as the Jacks are 16-for-26. They’re tied for ninth in third down defense giving up just 10 third downs in 39 attempts. SDSU is seventh in total defense, giving up 258 yards per game and ninth in total offense, averaging 454 yards per game.

Obviously those numbers are a bit skewed as Western Oregon and Drake are not the best of competition, but SDSU is doing what it should be doing to schools like that. Competition will stiffen once again next weekend as the Jacks will welcome No. 14 North Dakota to Brookings.

After the Drake game, Rogers mentioned what he’d like to see his team improve on. He brought up some things on the field, but added that it’s up to the leaders on the team to have a good bye week and have everyone keep improving.

“We have to get better at tackling. We have to cover better in man [coverage]. We need to pick up blitzes better at times. There’s a lot of things, but the film will show that. There’s always room for growth, even when you’re as talented as Isaiah Davis, Mark Gronowski and Mason McCormick. Everybody has room to improve. Those guys create their ceiling. How high they want to go with their game is really up to them. But they’re unbelievable leaders to be able to show the youth of our football team what it takes to get better,” Rogers said.

As always, the Missouri Valley Football Conference will be a gauntlet. Six of SDSU’s eight remaining opponents were ranked or received votes in the most recent coaches poll. That includes, No. 2 North Dakota State, No. 13 North Dakota, No. 18 Southern Illinois, No. 25 Illinois State and Northern Iowa and Youngstown State received votes. One of the two other games is South Dakota in Vermillion, where SDSU has not won since 2017.

Conference play will certainly not be a cake walk. Just look at last year. SDSU ran the table in MVFC play, but trailed or were tied going into halftime or the fourth quarter in four of the eight games.

The one thing SDSU has on its side this season is that the Jacks host North Dakota, Northern Iowa and North Dakota State. But it doesn’t matter where the games will be played, the opponent is always going to give you their best shot when you’re No. 1. That’s something quarterback Mark Gronowski acknowledged before the season started.

“We know what it takes [to win a national title]. We obviously need to go 1-0 each week to get to that point. To get that feeling again, I know we’re itching to get back there. … There’s no better place than being at the top. But now you have to fight off every single person that’s coming up to you and that’s always a tough thing because everyone is going to try and bring their A-game to us. No matter what they bring to us, as long as we’re bringing our best game, nobody out there should beat us, and we’re pretty confident in that,” Gronowski said.