BROOKINGS – South Dakota State lost its first game of the season last week in heartbreaking fashion. The Jackrabbits went for a two-point conversion trailing 42-41 in overtime against Souther Illinois and failed.
“Obviously a disappointing loss,” said SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier. “We did a lot of really good things, but we didn’t do enough of them and we didn’t make some plays when we had the chance to. SIU is a good football team and so are we, and I think it played out that way.”
The Jacks, who are now 4-1 overall and 1-1 in the Missouri Valley, will now have to travel to Western Illinois. SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier did acknowledge that the team did learn some lessons in their first loss of the season.
“[First lesson is] you have to seize every opportunity,” Stiegelmeier said. “It wasn’t good enough to be up 20-0 because it could have been a lot better than that, or worse than that depending on who’s looking at it. You know you can’t relax, which I don’t think we do, but there’s 120 guys on the sidelines, 10 coaches, one head coach, and you cant relax.
“I think some of the positive [lessons] are the number of fourth down stops we had and the goal line stands we had to have confidence, and to go out on the field with confidence in that situation and know you can make the play and you’ve proven you can make the play. Then turnovers are critical. We hadn’t had a turnover [all year] and we had some turnovers and they were costly in the game.”
Western Illinois comes into the game with an overall record of 1-5 and 1-2 in the MVFC. The Leathernecks lone win on the season was a 38-35 road win over Youngstown State on Sept. 18.
“I think [WIU] has really good athletes,” Stiegelmeier said. “I think specifically their defense, and I know the stats don’t necessarily [show this], I think their defense is playing much better than when we saw them last time. I think their quarterback is a winner, I think they have good receivers.
“They have a good game plan based on their strengths to not do things that aren’t in their strength’s category. Their well-coached and I really respect their [Jared Elliot] because I think he’s building a program the way you’re supposed to build it. We’ll have to be ready on the road to play our best football”
WIU has played some good teams very close. The Leathernecks fell 31-30 to SIU in overtime a week before the Jacks did. They lost to No. 2 ranked Eastern Washington 62-56 and fell to FBS Ball State 31-21.
Western Illinois has the fifth best scoring offense and total offense in the MVFC. The Leathernecks average 29.8 points and 404.8 total yards per game.
Senior quarter back Connor Sampson leads the conference in passing, averaging 310 yards per game. He has 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions on the season. Sampson is fourth in the country in total passing yards with 1,861.
Senior Dennis Houston leads the MVFC with 114.5 receiving yards per game, which is also third in the country. He has five touchdowns as well on the season.
“[WIU’s] offense is taylor made to be a two-minute offense anytime. Their base offense is made to come back in a football game. They have good players like I mentioned earlier,” Stiegelmeier said.
While WIU’s passing game is explosive, its rushing offensive is the exact opposite. The Leathernecks are last in the MVFC in rushing yards per game with 80.2. Indiana State is second to last and averages 104.2. The Leathernecks rank 112th out of 123 FCS teams in rush yards per game.
WIU’s defense has also struggled. The Leathernecks give up 39.7 points and 463.5 yards per game. Those rank last and second to last, respectively in the MVFC and the Leathernecks are 112th in the country in yards per game and 113th in points per game.
The Leathernecks are especially weak against the run as they are giving up 204.5 yards per game, which is 110th in the FCS. This will be a problem on Saturday as the Jacks average 235.6 yards per game on the ground, which is ninth in the FCS.
One of the issues the Jacks may face Saturday is being healthy. SDSU has already lost three players this season to long term injuries in wide receiver Landon Wolf, running back Isaiah Davis and cornerback Don Gardner.
Senior linebacker Logan Backhaus left the SIU game with a lower body injury in the first quarter and did not return. Stiegelmeier said Backhaus is questionable for Saturday’s game.
“[Backhaus] is day-to-day. He’ll be on the trip, how much he can play is up in the air. It’s an injury that’s day-to-day and then you can kind of do some preventative stuff game day, but we want him to be full speed anytime he plays,” Stiegelmeier said.
Stiegelmeier said Backhaus wasn’t the only defensive player to get banged up in the game against SIU, but he didn’t want to name names.
“There’s a number of guys [that were injured in the SIU game],” he added. “Our defense played 85 plays. I’m not going to go back to our guys playing in the spring as a concern, it was just a very physical game and our guys played hard. We have a couple d lineman that are on the injury list, a linebacker on the injury list. We have a number of guys and they’re all questionable right now.”
SDSU is sitting in fifth place in the MVFC. SIU is in first place with a 3-0 record in the conference and North Dakota State is in second with a 2-0 record.
South Dakota is in third and Missouri State is in fourth. Each of them have a record of 2-1.
There is still six weeks left in the season and a lot can change from now until the final regular season games are played on Nov. 20. SDSU knows that from the spring season.
The Jacks fell 28-17 to North Dakota in their second game of the spring. They then won their final four games of the season and claimed the No. 1 seed in the FCS Playoffs for the first time in program history.
Stiegelmeier said his team acknowledged that they lost a game last year and still played well the rest of the year, but he said that it’s a different season.
“… One of the things that was evident was the loss from the UND game in the spring because when I walked in the locker room I heard guys say that. Whole different scenario, limited games in the spring, you never know if you’re playing, so that was the 1-0 mentality and the fact that even though we had one loss our backs were against the wall. I don’t think our guys necessarily feel that [our backs are against the wall], but they feel the power and the message from the UND game. I’m not talking about that, I’ll let them talk about that if they want. I took a whole other approach yesterday when I talked to the team.”
SDSU leads the series with WIU 11-5. The Jacks have won seven-straight games against the Leathernecks and 10 of the last 11.
Kickoff between the Jacks and Leathernecks is scheduled for noon on Saturday. You can watch the game on ESPN+.