Jackrabbits open season vs. Gophers on Thursday night

Photo from www.gojacks.com.

For the first time since 2016, the South Dakota State football team will be opening its season against a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) team. The Jackrabbits will travel to Minneapolis on Thursday to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

SDSU opened last season against an FBS team on the road at Iowa State, but they only played 4:05 due to a severe thunderstorm and the game was cancelled.

The Jacks’ last full game against an FBS opponent was in 2016 when they lost 59-41 against Texas Christian. SDSU played well that game and only trailed 45-41 with 11:57 left, but ran out of gas in the final 12 minutes.

SDSU’s lone win against an FBS team came in 2015 when the Jacks beat Kansas 41-38 

Head coach John Stiegelmier has coached in nine games against FBS opponents, so he knows what it’s like.

“It’s a bigger stage. It’s national TV. It’s a local team that some of our guys dreamed about being a part of or watched from a distance. So it’s totally different and it’s a chance for us as a program to make a statement,” Stiegelmeier said. 

Minnesota is coming off a season where it finished 7-6 and won four of its last six games. With Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck entering his third season, the Gophers are on the rise in the Big Ten and Stiegelmeier said his team can’t afford to make any mistakes if they want to win.

“You can’t make mistakes because physically, they are in theory going to better than you at some positions,” Stiegelmeier said. “You have to tackle the out, be in the gap on defense, know your blocking schemes … Play poised and understand that they’re going to make plays. You want to look at the clock in the fourth quarter and feel that you have a chance to win the game because then the pressure is on them.”

As Stiegelmeier alluded to, the Jackrabbits are excited for the opportunity and the exposure, but Stiegelmeier doesn’t think his players will let their emotions get to them once the ball is kicked off.

“I don’t think we don’t ever get too excited. First of all, the head coach is the most boring guy in the world, so nothing in the locker room is going to get them excited,” Stiegelmeier said.

Minnesota retruns nine guys on offense, including 100% of their passing, 99% of their rushing and 99% of their receiving last season. Projected starting quarterback Zack Annexstead went down in fall camp with a foot injury, so sophomore Tanner Morgan will get the start.

Morgan played in nine games last season and threw for 1,401 yards and nine touchdowns. His top target is senior Tyler Johnson. Johnson, who was a First Team All-Big Ten player last season, caught 78 passes for 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns. 

“We respect (Johnson’s) ability and respect his speed. We have to know that a 10-yard out isn’t going to beat us. You have to take care of the plays that beat you. The post will beat you first and the fade will beat you next. So we have to rally and tackle and grab some cloth. He’s a really good football player and he’s fun to watch,” Stiegelmeier said.

The Gophers’ backfield has combined for 6,503 yards and 52 touchdowns in their careers. Seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks are each coming of season-ending injuries last year. 

Sophomores Mohamed Ibrahim and Bryce Williams stepped up in their absence though. Ibrahim ran for 1,160 yards and nine touchdowns, while Williams ran for 502 yards and four touchdowns.

“They’re really good at running back. It’s a different level of athlete … Their backs are different. They’re very physical. A lot like Mikey [Daniel]. Not a lot of cuts, so you better grab ahold of some cloth,” Stiegelmeier said.

SDSU will be starting a new quarterback for the first time since 2015 in J’Bore Gibbs. Gibbs has some big shoes to follow as Taryn Christion broke almost every SDSU record for a quarterback. Stiegelmeier said it’s a tough environment for a freshman to play his first game in, but he believes Gibbs is ready for the task at hand.

“He does (look ready) and I don’t think he’s ever going to be nervous. I don’t think that’s in his make. Very much like Taryn. I think Taryn was a great mentor for him. I can’t imagine the number of times J’Bore said ‘I want to be like Taryn Christion,’” Stiegelmeier said. 

Just like the Gophers, the Jacks return their top-two playmakers as well in running back Pierre Strong Jr. and wide receiver Cade Johnson. Strong rushed for 1,116 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Johnson was tied for first in the NCAA in touchdown receptions with 17. He also had 1,332 receiving yards last season.

Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. Thursday night and the game will be broadcast on Fox Sports 1.

In the last meeting between the two teams, Minnesota beat SDSU 16-13 in 2009.

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