Jackrabbits open football season Friday at UNI

SDSU Athletics photo

BROOKINGS – It has been 438 days since the South Dakota State football team has played a game. Friday, the Jacks will take on Northern Iowa for the first of an eight-game spring schedule.

“We’re excited,” said SDSU head coach John Steigelmeier. “We tested our guys [Wednesday] morning. We’ll find out if we’re all OK. We haven’t had a positive test in two weeks, so that’s super and our guys have done a great job. Our guys are excited to play and understand the difficulty of playing on the road. Playing in the Missouri Valley, especially UNI, but our guys feel very confident. We’re on our 116th practice or walkthrough or jog through or captains practice since [COVID], so we better know what we’re doing.”

The Jacks were supposed to play a fall season, but it was postponed to the spring due to COVID. SDSU will now play eight games all against MVFC opponents.

“I think the question I get asked the more than why now is why didn’t we play in the fall? And I just don’t think we were prepared for like an FCS school to handle all the testing and be able to switch schedules in a heartbeat, change opponents. So because of the commitment and the level of competition in the Missouri Valley, we chose that we’re going to play a season, we’re going to play our conference season, we’re going to name a conference champ and some of us are going to be playing for a national championship,” Stiegelemeier said.

The SDSU football players have been getting tested for COVID once a week. SDSU offensive lineman Mason McCormick said SDSU players are taking the protocols very seriously.

“I don’t think guys took it super serious two months ago, but guys now aren’t really going out to eat. Guys aren’t doing anything. It’s definitely a lot. I’m definitely getting sick of my roommates already, but we kind of have to embrace it and we’re doing good. Staying at home, going to practice. Back and forth. It’s been alright,” McCormick said.

The last game SDSU played was against UNI. The Jacks fell to the Panthers 13-10 in the second round of the FCS Playoffs on Dec. 7, 2019. The loss came just three weeks after SDSU beat UNI 38-7. Steigelmeier said game planning against the Panthers hasn’t changed much.

“Coach [Mark] Farley has been there a long time. His coordinators are both back. We’re approaching [this game] very similar [to the last game]. It’s an opening game and we’re using film from a long time ago. Each of us will have some things we change and the things we tweak, but I think especially with Coach [Farley], his system works. They play great defense. They have a great quarterback. Great skill, so I don’t see them changing a lot,” Stiegelmeier sad.

UNI lost in the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs 17-0 to James Madison in 2019. The Panthers bring back quarterback Will McElvain, who threw for 2,278 yards, 20 toouchdowns and seven interceptions in 2019. The Panthers were picked to finish second in the MVFC in 2021 right ahead of SDSU.

The Jacks might look a little different on offense this season. Stiegelmeier has yet to announce who is going to be starting at quarterback for his team. He said they will look at the film and make a decision Thursday before Friday’s game.

The decision is between sophomores J’Bore Gibbs and Keaton Heide and true freshman Mark Gronkowski. Gibbs started six games for the Jacks in 2019 but missed the rest due to injury. He threw for 1,058 yards, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions. Gibbs also ran for 88 yards and four touchdowns.

Heide played in seven games for SDSU in 2019 and threw for 1,072 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. Steigelmeier said Gronkowski has gotten most of the reps in fall practice because the other two dealt with COVID issues.

Another position group that has a question mark is the wide receivers. SDSU lost Cade Johnson, its leading receiver from 2019, because he opted out of the season to focus on the NFL Draft. The Jacks now have just two upperclassmen at wide receiver. SDSU is expected to heavily lean on sophomores Jaxon and Jadon Janke. Jaxon was third on the team in receiving in 2019 with 29 catches for 353 yards and four touchdowns.

“I’ve never not believed in any group, so I believe that the [wide receivers] will rise up to the occasion. I know I’ve seen through my career when you look a guy in the eye and say ‘I believe in you. Go out and make plays.’ They do that and most of the time they surprise you beyond what you thought they could do. I think the Janke’s have had a really good fall camp and a number of other guys have had good fall camps. Looking forward to those guys making plays,” Stiegelmeier said.

The Jacks do however return their leading rusher from 2019 in Pierre Strong Jr. Strong played in 11 games last season, rushing for 1,018 yards and eight touchdowns. 

SDSU also has an experienced offensive line and tight ends. Blake Kunz and Zach Heins will lead the way for the tight ends. Kunz caught eight passes for 105 yards and a touchdown in 2019 and Heins caught three passes for 63 yards and a touchdown.

“I think we’ve upped our investment in terms of using tight ends. … We’ve got some really good tight ends and the offensive line is really good. Pierre and our running back crew is good. We may dedicate to the run more and thus playaction pass more than a spread type of game plan, but I think you’ll see a lot of similar things just maybe different personnel,” Stiegelmeier said.

McCormick added that he thinks SDSU can be a very physical team this season.

“Absolutely, I think [we can be physical]. I think we have built a good tight knit group with how many reps we’ve had and I think we’re ready to roll. We’re definitely ready to rally around Pierre Strong and all our good backs and I think it should be really fun in the run game,” McCormick said.

The Jacks have eight seniors on the defensive side of the football. Stiegelmeier said that is very important considering three big-time starters in Christian Rozeboom, Ryan Earith and Marshon Harris were lost to graduation.

“Experience is so important and then success in your experience allows you to be an sll-conference type player and it’s really comforting. The [seniors] you’re talking about are great leaders and they’re really good football players. What they do on the football field really makes the difference. It’s the calming affect. It’s the making plays. It’s getting excited. That type of thing. Our defensive coordinators, [Brian Bergstrom] and [Jimmy Rodgers] have done a phenomenal job of bringing those guys together and playing as a unit. I’m looking forward to watching our defense and our offense,” Stiegelemeier said.

The Jacks are ranked No. 5 in the STATS FCS Preseason Top 25 and the Panthers are No. 3.

Kickoff between SDSU and UNI is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The Jacks will play at UND next weekend before their home opener against Western Illinois on March 6.


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