College football: SDSU's biggest challenge could be to live up to its own standard

While some teams aspire to be SDSU, the Jacks expect to keep raising the bar.

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BROOKINGS — The last time South Dakota State took the field, they left disappointed.

This wasn’t because the Jackrabbits had lost. They had just finished stomping Missouri State and capturing their second straight outright Missouri Valley Football Conference Championship. It was their 25th straight win and 18th straight at home. But even as the Jacks had cemented their status as the only undefeated team in the FCS, something felt off.

“I think today even leaving the field, guys are so used to playing at an extremely high level,” Rogers said after that game. “When they don’t feel like they played their best, it’s almost like they felt like they didn’t win. I told them to enjoy this. It’s really hard to do what they did.”

Two weeks passed since that game and when Jacks emerged from their first-round bye they not only looked like the team that steamrolled their way to a national title, they looked even better, beginning their road to Frisco with a 41-0 win over Mercer on Saturday afternoon.

The win was an example of what the Jacks can be and why they are the standard not only for themselves but for the rest of the FCS.

The SDSU offense racked up 346 rushing yards against a Bears defense that allowed 106.7 rushing yards per game.  Isaiah Davis continued his dominant playoff resume, recording his sixth career three-touchdown game and his third in the playoffs while Amar Johnson also came in to clean up with 107 rushing yards.

Angel Johnson got his late in the game with an 80-yard run that capped the scoring and by the time Mercer head coach Drew Cronic arrived at the podium, he was impressed by the fury of the SDSU offensive line and the pure speed the Jacks contained in the backfield.

“Obviously, in the trenches, they’re a bunch of big strong kids,” Cronic said. “We tend to think we have a little more speed in the south…but there’s just processes you’re going through. …We’ve been really hard to run the football against and today they were able to impose that on us.”

Even when the Jacks took to the air, Mark Gronowski was almost flawless, completing 11-of-16 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown including seven passes to Jaxon Janke for 106 yards and a touchdown.

“You’ve got a quarterback that just didn’t make any mistakes,” Cronic said. “He just managed the game, he hit people and he never seemed to be in a hurry and we weren’t able to pressure him a whole lot.”

For as good as SDSU was on offense, they were even better defensively. Mercer quarterback Carter Peevy ran for two touchdowns including a 72-yarder in a first-round win over Gardner-Webb but was held in check and pressured constantly, getting sacked twice and throwing a pair of second-half interceptions.

“When I see them on defense…they’re tremendous up front,” Cronic said. “Length, size…they’re very well coached. They’re exactly where they’re supposed to be and they’re physical and run to the football. You can see that. You know that’s how this program has been built. It’s very impressive because…I didn’t enjoy getting my butt kicked, but I enjoyed being here to be able to see it. You learn a lot and everybody’s got their own challenges.”

Whatever challenges the Jacks were going through, they weren’t obvious on Saturday. With a dominant performance on both sides of the ball, the only blemish was a fake punt that allowed Mercer to convert a fourth down in the second quarter when SDSU had already established a 17-0 lead.

But no matter how perfect the Jacks were on Saturday, they’re driven by the pursuit of perfection. Not just in terms of an undefeated record or a 41-point shutout victory but just in how they block out the noise and bring a consistent approach to each game.

“It’s honoring to hear anything like that, but in the end, I don’t get too caught up when I hear from other people,” Rogers said. “I know what’s on the film and I know the errors that are created. Is it perfect? It never will be, but that’s the goal.”

It’s why the Jacks are obsessed with their own performance and why a game like Missouri State felt underwhelming to them.

“This has been a unique year in the sense that when we win and we win like that, you should see that in the locker room,” Rogers admitted. “We get excited for a little bit, but it’s almost forced joy. The standard is to win it all and we’re going to reset ourselves and walk into the next opportunity that we get and try to match that performance.”

It’s why Saturday’s game felt satisfying to some but status quo to a team like the Jacks and it’s why a decisive win over Missouri State a few weeks ago felt like it could have been that much better.

“I think that’s the sign of a championship program,” Rogers said a few weeks ago. “It’s just that we need to be more consistent out of the gate and play with great energy. …Come playoffs, we want that great energy.”

While a team like Mercer, who won nine games and reached the playoff for the first time in school history, looks to the Jacks as the standard, SDSU knows they are the team that the rest of the FCS aspires to be.