BROOKINGS – For the 107th time in South Dakota State history the Jackrabbits will play in the Hobo Day Game Saturday as SDSU welcomes Northern Iowa to Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.
The Jacks did not have a Hobo Day Game last year due to COVID and SDSU head coach John Stieglmeier thinks this game will special to fans.
“I think if you’re an alum and you look forward to coming back to campus, and the tradition of the parade and the presidents breakfast and all those things that come along with it, [Hobo Day] might be bigger this year for them than it is for us,” Stiegelmeier said. “For us we talk about Hobo Week and we have one job to do and that starts at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
“You have your priorities in your life and make sure your taking care of your classes, make sure you take care of your body and then make sure your ready to play your best football.”
No. 6 SDSU is coming off of a 41-17 road win over Western Illinois. With the win the Jacks improved to 5-1 overall and 2-1 in the Missouri Valley.
The No. 20 ranked Panthers come into the matchup with an overall record of 3-3 and 1-2 in the MVFC. They are coming off of back-to-back losses against North Dakota State and South Dakota. UNI fell at NDSU 34-20 and lost to USD 34-21 at home last week.
Stiegelmeier said he thinks the Panthers will come into this game hungry.
“[UNI coming off a couple of losses makes this game difficult] and that coupled with the fact that coach [Mark] Farley will have his team ready,” Stiegelmeier said. “If you followed in the spring, and we talked about this, that and the other thing, one of the conversations was, how many people do you need to play, and coach Farley, I don’t know if I can quote him exactly, but he said ‘we will find the guys to play. We will play football,’ and that’s the kind of program they have.
“They play hard, very hard. They have very good skill. They’re a little upset and they expect to make the Playoffs right now and that’s teetering for them right now, so they’ll be ready to play without a doubt.”
With a loss to SDSU, UNI’s FCS Playoff hopes will take another hit as the Panthers have just two ranked teams on their schedule the rest of the way. UNI has made the FCS Playoffs 21 times and has made it five of the past seven seasons.
UNI holds a 32-23-2 advantage in the series between the Jacks and Panthers that dates back to 1935. The Panthers are 10-7 against the Jacks since SDSU joined the FCS in 2004. The road team has won six of the past nine meetings and UNI ended SDSU’s season in 2019 with a 13-10 road win in the FCS Playoffs.
“I would say they’re two really good football teams, ourselves and UNI,” Stiegelmeier said. “If you look at the scores, USD got out of hand a little bit, but they played North Dakota State on the road very tough. So I think with a good football team, being a visitor isn’t a big deal because your guys understand, they’re mature, they know what is expected of them.
“They’ll come ready to play and [Farley] knows Hobo Day, his brother played here. He knows all this stuff, so he’ll come laugh at my beard and we’ll have a good chat at the start, and his players will play really hard. We just need to do our job. In terms of matchups, they are very skilled on offense, so we need to eliminate some big plays and make them march the field and then move the field on offense.”
Scouting the Panthers
UNI has a new quarterback at the helm. Theo Day, a redshirt sophomore transfer from Michigan State, replaced Will McElvain after UNI’s 16-10 opening loss to Iowa State.
In six games, Day has thrown for 1,061 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions, while completing 58.1% of his passes. He may be without his top weapon Saturday as senior wide receiver Isaiah Weston is questionable.
Weston is fourth in the MVFC in receiving yards with 453. He also has four touchdowns on the season.
“[Day] has a really good arm,” Stiegelmeier said. “He makes good decisions and he’s got a lot of targets and a lot of weapons. As I understand [Weston] may be out, who is one of their best, if not their best receiver, but they have a lot of guys he can go to. [Day] can run, I don’t think that’s the forte, I don’t think they’ve designed stuff for him to run, I know they haven’t, but he can run in the open field and get some yards.
“I think he’s a really good player. He can throw the out [route] from the hashmark all the way to the other sideline, so he’s got adequate arm strength. I know he beat out a starter, so I know he’s a good player because the guy he beat out I thought was a really good player.”
Northern Iowa is ranked second in total defense in the MVFC and 18th in the FCS as the Panthers give up 303.7 yards per game. They also give up just 18.3 points per game.
Stiegelmeier said the UNI defense is tough to prepare for because they throw so many different looks at you.
“I think their strength on defense is their back seven,” Stiegelmeier said. “Their nose guard is one of the best players in the nation in terms of defensive line. But really their strength, in terms of skill and are physical, is in the backfield.
“Then they give you a bunch of looks. They’ll give you a four-man front, a three-man front with a safety in the middle, a three-man front with guys all over the place. They’ll give you a three-man personal with a four-man front. So you better understand your rules and you better have plays that fit all those different arrangements because coach Farley is going to give them to you, and he’s not going to do the same thing he did last week. Not because they lost, but because they have so much in their purse.”
UNI gives up just 110.3 yards per game on the ground, which is fourth in the MVFC. The Panthers will face maybe their toughest test yet as they will go up against SDSU’s Pierre Strong Jr. on Saturday.
Strong has had a special season so far for SDSU. The senior from Little Rock, Ark., has rushed for 770 yards on 94 carries, which is third in the FCS, and has nine rushing touchdowns, which is tied for second. He also has two passing touchdowns this season.
Strong moved into fifth place in SDSU history for rushing yards in the 55-7 win over Dixie State on Oct. 2. He has 3,605 yards rushing for his career and could move into fourth place with 108 yards on Saturday. Josh Ranek is in first place with 6,744 and Zach Zenner is in second with 6,548.
Strong moved into sixth place in SDSU career rushing touchdowns in SDSU’s 41-17 win over WIU last week. He has 31 rushing touchdowns and could move into fourth place when the season is done as Dan Sonnek has 32 and Jerry Welch has 34. Ranek is in first (62) and Zenner is in second (61).
Stiegelmeier said Strong will likely go down as one of the SDSU greats when he finishes his career as a Jackrabbit.
“Pierre is a special student athlete. He had a great summer, he came in very focused. It’s so cool. One of the things he’s most proud of is he’s going to graduate and I love that about our student athletes. He’s healthy, he appears to be faster, so I think he worked hard on his speed. In terms of Zenner and Ranek and guys, each one of them was different. Pierre has a unique running style, that he hops out of tackles, he’s real smooth, he gets to top speed quick. But he’s a great running back for the Jackrabbits. We’ll see where he ends up, but I’m glad he’s on our football team,” Stiegelmeier said.
SDSU is 62-39-5 in Hobo Day Games. The Jacks are 16-7 under Stiegelmeier, but are just 4-4 in their last eight Hobo Day Games.
“I don’t know [why we are 4-4 the last eight years],” Stiegelmeier said. “… When you play a good football team, when you play in the Missouri Valley Football Conference you’re going play a lot of good football teams, Western showed that on Saturday. You better be ready to play your best football. If there was one thing about Hobo Day or Hobo Week, there’s a lot of distractions. A lot of late nights by people other than our players, but a good night of sleep and focus, all of those things come into play when winning football games. I believe our guys will try to eliminate that static, but I don’t know if they can eliminate it totally.”
The Jacks have won two-straight Hobo Day Games. This is the fourth time UNI and SDSU will do battle on Hobo Day. The Panthers are 2-1 in the three previous games and have won the past two. UNI won 38-18 in 2017 and 10-7 in 2015, with the Jacks winning 24-14 in 2009.
Kickoff between the Jacks and Panthers is scheduled for 2 p.m. You can watch the game on ESPN3.com.