BROOKINGS – South Dakota State football is playing in primetime Sunday. The No. 1-seeded Jackrabbits host Southern Illinois at 8 p.m. in the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs.
This is a rematch for the Jacks. SDSU beat SIU 44-3 in Carbondale, Ill., in the regular season. SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier said that even though it was a blow out in the first game, he is emphasizing that his team cannot overlook the Salukis.
“[Overlooking SIU] is a concern,” Stiegelemeier said. “… I addressed the team last night and said ‘we’re not thinking about playing SIU for the second time. We’re thinking about playing a team in the playoffs and we have to be as good as we can be at that point in the season.’ It’s one guy making that decision at a time. We got 100 something guys on the team, so I need all of them to make the decision whether they’re scout team or not. I believe they’ll do that.”
In the first matchup, SDSU ran the ball 61 times for 392 yards. The Jacks threw the ball just 12 times and completed eight of those passes for 70 yards. Stiegelmeier said the matchup to look out for is SDSU’s rushing offense against SIU’s rush defense.
“I think [winning the battle up front on offense] is very important in a number of ways. The first one is that is our makeup right now. That’s our recipe. We game plan like that. We don’t expect it to happen, but we work hard on being able to run the football. No. 2, I mentioned after our first game with them, [the way we ran it] is discouraging [for SIU]. I don’t care who you are, mentally. If you’re able to run the ball and get 4 or 6 yards each time, that discourages an entire opponent because you’re holding onto the ball and you’re playing a game that’s physical and the way it’s supposed to be played,” Stiegelmeier said.
SIU is coming off of a 34-31 first-round victory over Weber State on the road. The Salukis trailed 31-27 with 5:25 left in the game. Quarterback Stone Labanowitz led SIU on an 11-play, 75-yard drive, capped off with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Branson Combs to take the lead.
Labanowitz was 21-for-34 with 264 yards, two touchdowns and one interception last week. Labanowitz, who is SIU’s third-string quarterback and has played the past three games due to injuries, has thrown for 994 yards and seven touchdowns this season and only has two interceptions.
“I think their quarterback has been playing at a really high level,” Stiegelmeier said. “Both quarterbacks when we played them, I don’t think played as well as they wanted to. … Their quarterback is making plays. I watched the Weber State game twice now. … That young man just makes plays. He’s got a knack and that gets them going.”
Avante Cox is the Salukis’ star wide receiver. He has 61 catches for 780 yards and five touchdowns. The 780 yards is fifth in the FCS this season.
SIU averages 423.1 yards per game, which is 17th in the FCS. The Salukis average 230.6 passing yards per game. SDSU is giving up 266.7 total yards per game, which is 10th in the FCS.
SDSU’s ground game has been firing on all cylinders lately. The Jacks are averaging 239.9 yards per game on the ground, which is sixth in the FCS. Stiegelmeier said the offensive line has been good, but it helps having running backs like Pierre Strong Jr. and Isaiah Davis.
“I think [the offensive line] is playing at a high level. I don’t know if they’re the best ever. One thing that helps them out is a couple running backs that are really special players in Isaiah and Pierre. I do know this, they talk all the time in practice. … They really have become one unit and maybe that’s the best situation. That they’re really unified as a offensive line,” Stiegelmeier said.
SDSU true freshman quarterback Mark Gronowski has also stepped up lately. During the Jacks’ past three games he’s had 609 total yards of offense with six total touchdowns and no turnovers.
Sunday’s game will be televised on ESPN2. Despite the complaints of fans for the start time and day, Stiegelmeier said it’s good for his team to be playing on national television and his guys love playing under the lights.
“I think [being on national television] is super,” Stiegelmeier said. “It’s like having [College] Gameday. It’s pretty good advertising for our program, but I think it’s also great for our university. To see South Dakota State and for people to be able to watch nationwide. I hope we’re able to show them a good crowd. An excited crowd that’s into the game. There’s no doubt that this is a positive and our guys love night games. They’ll play anytime under lights.”