Jackrabbits set to hit the road again in the playoffs

Photo from SDSU Athletics: South Dakota State running back Isaiah Davis runs the ball for a touchdown during the second quarter of a 24-19 win over Sacramento State in the second round of the FCS Playoffs in Sacramento, California.

BROOKINGS – For the fifth time in the past six years, the South Dakota State football team is playing in the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs. The Jackrabbits will travel to Philadelphia Saturday to take on No. 5-seeded Villanova.

SDSU is coming off of a 24-19 road victory over No. 4 seeded Sacramento State. The Jacks led 24-0 at halftime, but struggled in the second half, getting outscored 19-0. SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier said his team will learn from their poor second half.

“There’s a reason for everything. Everything happens for a reason and you use that reason to learn from it. We had a great first half [at Sacramento State] and had a way below average second half. So the learning point there is, the challenge there is, to play a complete game always and to realize that moving forward if we play like that, we’re probably going to put our pads away. I really think it became a challenge for our guys, not a mentally disappointing thing, but a challenge to be better for every player on the field,” Stiegelmeier said.

As far as specifics for what his team needs to do better in, Stiegelmeier said they need to adjust better on offense and get off the field quicker on defense.

“We need to react better on offense,” he said. “If they change their scheme or approach, we need to react and adjust. You need to do that any half in a game of football. Defensively, we need to get off the field. You can’t let them keep moving the ball and then when you do have them stopped, you have a penalty and let them keep going. 

“So both sides of the ball really were at fault for the bad second half. Everybody gets excited about the offense, but the defense can create three-and-outs too and we didn’t do that.”

SDSU ran the ball well once again last week. The Jacks racked up 205 yards rushing on the Hornets. Isaiah Davis, who missed nine games with a shoulder injury this season, led the way for SDSU with 108 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. Pierre Strong Jr. added 73 yards and a score on 14 carries.

The Jacks average 215 yards per game on the ground, which is ninth in the FCS. They’ll have a tough matchup this week as the Wildcats have the 10th-best rush defense in the country, giving up just 99.3 yards per game.

This will be the second-straight week SDSU will have a long trip. The Jacks had a three-hour plane ride to Sacramento and the team did not get back to Sioux Falls until early Sunday morning. This week they’ll have another long flight as they head out east.

Stiegelmeier said the travel could be a strain on his team, but they are trying their best to prepare for it.

“The travel is a huge strain,” Stiegelmeier said. “The fact that we got back to town Sunday morning at 6:30 a.m. and had treatments then because we wanted our guys to be able to have a good night sleep if they hadn’t on the plane. Then to lose an hour the next time we fly, again it’s about a three-hour trip, it’s very hard on the body. 

“That’s why were asking our guys to get extra sleep this week. It is finals week. We start finals on Thursday and Friday, so we have a number of guys, I’d say 50 guys, well with travel 35 guys, that have to adjust their finals, so that’s an added stressor. It’s flu season, all of those things. Just asking those guys to do what we did in the spring and take care of themselves to the max.”

SDSU will be on the road for the rest of the playoffs as the Jacks are the only unseeded team left in the bracket. Since 2013, when the playoff field expanded to 24 teams and they started to seed the top-eight teams, no unseeded team has ever won the title. Youngstown State is the only unseeded team to reach the National Championship and the Penguins lost to No. 4 seeded James Madison 28-14.

Stiegelmeier said his team has embraced that they are going to have to win on the road if they want to bring a championship to Brookings.

“I think they have embraced [going on the road to win a championship],” he said. “We’re living in two different worlds. In the spring we were the No. 1 seed and we were blessed to be at home. I do know this, they’re not disappointed we’re not a seed, but they do realize the importance moving forward of having one of those eight numbers in front of your name. 

“So we have to embrace, we have to do it. Our mental performance coach has told our team, and it’s his research, so if it’s wrong blame him, that no unseeded team has ever won the National Champioship. So I think our guys embrace statements like that and say ‘lets be part of history.’ In fact, Don Gardner in his senior talk [on Monday night] said some neat things that addressed that.”

This is the 10th-straight season the Jacks have made the playoffs. Last season was moved to the spring due to COVID and the Jacks made it to the National Championship and fell to Sam Houston State 23-21. The goal is to win a title, but Stiegelmeier said he is grateful to be in a position where that is the goal and they’re not just happy to be in the playoffs or the quarterfinals.

“We have really high expectations for our program, but we don’t take it for granted,” he said. “Our players, our present players, really don’t know any different, but I’ve been here 34 years and every time we make the playoffs I turn to my wife and say ‘everyone expects this. I’m tickled to be in this situation because I remember when we weren’t in this situation.’ 

“I love high expectations from inside the locker room and outside the locker room, but there’s a lot of people that have worked really hard to answer this question and have 10 wins, and they were inside the locker room and our administrations and presidents and so on. I don’t take it for granted.”

Kickoff between the Jackrabbits and Wildcats is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Saturday. You can watch the game on ESPN+.