BROOKINGS – With three games left in the season, South Dakota State will begin its most critical stretch of the season Saturday when they take on No. 11 Illinois State.
The Jackrabbits bounced back from their first loss in conference play last weekend by beating Missouri State 35-14. SDSU will now turn its focus to the Redbirds who are 6-3 overall and 3-2 in the Missouri Valley. ISU is coming off of a 27-10 loss at home to No. 6 Northern Iowa.
The matchup against ISU begins a three-game stretch where the Jacks will play Northern Iowa at home next weekend before traveling to Vermillion to take on South Dakota to end the regular season. The reason this stretch is critical is because SDSU was ranked No. 4 in the FCS Playoff Committee in their only ranking announcement before the official one on Nov. 24.
The top-eight seeds in the FCS Playoffs get a first round bye in the playoffs. One or two losses may knock the Jacks out of the top-eight seeds. However, a win against ISU and/or ISU would likely solidify them as a top-eight team in the FCS.
The Redbirds’ other two losses this season were 24-10 against FBS Northern Illinois and 37-3 against NDSU. ISU prides themselves on playing good defense and running the football. They are only giving up 17.8 points and 323.6 yards per game.
“They love their base defense and are are really good at it. … Whatever they choose to be base, which is an odd front. They’re going to play that a huge majority of the game. So then when you get a play on them they don’t change the defense. They talk about what they need to do in that base defense,” SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier said.
ISU is led by senior running back James Robinson who averages 108.3 yards per game on the ground. That mark is second in the Missouri Valley to only SDSU’s Pierre Strong. Jr who averages 109 yards per game. Stiegelmeier said Robinson is tough to stop because he is strong and hard to bring down.
“He’s a really good football player. He’s powerful and runs hard. He runs through tackles. Doesn’t dance a bunch, but he’ll cut back off the edge. You have to get into your gap and get ready to tackle a 225-pound football player,” Stiegelmeier said.
The Redbirds have the worst passing offense in the MVFC. Junior quarterback Brady Davis averages 148.9 yards per game with six touchdowns and eight interceptions. Kacper Rutkiewicz is the leading receiver for ISU. He has 18 catches for 386 yards and no touchdowns.
SDSU is the second best overall defense and the second best rushing defense in the MVFC. One of the surprises for the Jacks has been sophomore defensive end Reece Winkelman.
Winkelman has four sacks this season which is tied for the most on the team with senior Ryan Earith. He also has five tackles for a loss on the season. He said he did not expect to have to have such an impact this season.
“I didn’t expect that I was going to have as many chances (to get sacks and tackles for loss). But a lot of those come from other players doing their thing and leaving a spot for me to fill,” he said.
Winkelman added that Earith has helped him a lot in his two seasons at SDSU.
“Coming in Ryan was my mentor and I had him when I was on my official visit. So I’ve always really looked up to him and he’s taught me so much,” Winkelman said.
SDSU will turn to freshman quarterback Keaton Heide again. Heide started his first career game against Missouri State after starting quarterback J’Bore Gibbs hurt his knee against NDSU. He went 11-for-19 with 173 yards and a touchdown. Heide said before the game Stiegelemeier and offensive coordinator Jason Eck told him to be himself and not overdue it.
“We have a great offensive line. Great supporting teammates and stuff like that. So they all just kind of boosted me up all week and knew that if I played like how I was I’d be just fine,” Heide said.
Stiegelmeier gave Heide an A- for his performance against MSU. Heide said that sounded about right, but he is a harder grader than his head coach.
“I’d give myself a B, B+. I think there’s a lot that I can work on and by doing that it’ll make everything work more smoothly.
Heide added the biggest thing he needs to improve on his pre-snap plan and his chemistry with the starters.
Gibbs has still been attending practice every day even with his injury. In between reps Heide said Gibbs gives him pointers and talks about what he can improve.
“J’Bore is one of my super good friends,” Heide said. “On the field he is the best coach and mentor you could ask for. Ever since his injury even though it’s been super tough on him and the whole team, he’s been there with me and everybody else.”
The Redbirds are led on defense by junior defensive end Romeo McKnight. He has eight sacks and 10.5 tackles for a loss. ISU leads the MVFC with 33 sacks.
The Jacks helped themselves get ready for cold weather by practicing in the snow on Tuesday. Stiegelemeier said it was a good chance for the specialists to get some work in.
“I think the most important thing is the specialists to be outdoors in the snow. To be able to punt, kick, catch, snap, all that. We were going to go out there for the punt game, so we stayed out there a little while longer,” he said.
Practice in that type of weather should help the Jackrabbits since they will likely be playing at least one game in Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in late November and December. The Jackrabbits didn’t practice outside on Wednesday though because it is supposed to be 45 degrees and sunny on Saturday.
“We got some snow in, but it’s not supposed to snow on Saturday. It’s supposed to be a beautiful day. So why would we go outside again. If these guys weren’t tough we wouldn’t have recruited them,” Stiegelmeier said.
Kickoff between the Jackrabbits and Redbirds is scheduled for 2 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN+.