South Dakota State is no pushover. The Jackrabbits open the season ranked No. 10 in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Entering his 18th season in Brookings, S.D., coach John Stiegelmeier boasts a squad that reached the second round of the FCS playoffs last season and returns 15 starters, including seven on offense.
South Dakota State, which went 9-5 last season and is ranked in the top 10 to start the year for the second consecutive season, will be facing its first SEC foe, but aren’t a stranger to big-time competition.
The Jackrabbits have tussled with an FBS program each of the last six seasons, going 0-6 — although there have been some close calls against Minnesota in 2009, Nebraska in 2010 and Kansas in 2012.
Terry Vandrovec, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader’s beat writer for South Dakota State, was kind enough to provide some insight in the Missouri’s opponent for Saturday’s season opener at 2:30 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.
Q: Do the Jackrabbits believe they can beat Missouri?
Vandrovec: “I get the sense that they think they can win. The identity of their program is changing by virtue of some pretty major facility things going on, but they’ve always kind of been the underdog. That’s nothing new to them. They’ve been known as a very gritty, don’t-back-down type of program.
“Now, can they win? I think they’re 30-point underdogs for a reason. The matchup is not a good one in that, everything I’ve heard about Missouri is they start out with athletes and turn them into football players. SDSU is the exact opposite. They bring in guys they consider football players and hope they can make them a little faster and stronger. The bottom line, it’s going to be a real tall task for them.”
Q: Just how good is Zach Zenner, who’s rushed for 2,000-plus yards each of the last two seasons? Could he play anywhere?
Vandrovec: “Yeah, I think so. I’ll use a basketball comparison. A couple years SDSU had a player named Nate Wolters get drafted. It’s the same kind of thing. Both are Minnesota kids and, but if they had gone to the University of Minnesota, where both were only offered as walk-ons, they probably wouldn’t have gotten much, if any, playing time until their junior or senior year. Whereas here, they were the guy almost from day one, so they got a ton of reps, a lot of development and a chance to become better than they were projected to be.
“I was at practice the other day and the Lions and the Panthers were there. I’ve heard the Ravens are very high on (Zenner). At the same time, he’s a premed kid, one of those guys where, if he decided to just go to medical school, it wouldn’t really surprise me. He said he wants to pursue (an NFL career), though, and he’s done it against high-level guys the last few years.”
Q: How much of an advantage does Missouri have at the line scrimmage, and is that where the game’s going to be decided?
Vandrovec: “It is, and I think that’s the only way the Jacks can play it. They can’t win a track meet, but if they can win between the tackles — and you’ve got the running back to do that — you’ve giving yourself your best chance. When you look at the two lines, South Dakota State made its playoff push last year by virtue of a line that was dominant. Both of those units have had to retool.
“You look at the offensive line, they’re going to have first-time starters at right tackle, right guard and center. That’s the big concern for the coaching staff. The defensive line, there are some new guys in spots there, but it sort of played out the way the coaches thought it would. It’s a weird question, because, you’re right, Missouri definitely has the edge on paper. At the same time, I still think (South Dakota State) would rather take their chances going up the gut than thinking they’re going to sweep it around the end past some really fast linebackers and corners.”
Q: Last year, South Dakota State was pretty good at protecting the football. Missouri has the nation’s longest streak with 44 consecutive games forcing at least one turnover. Can the Jackrabbits end that?
Vandrovec: “It would help their chances, but I don’t know. One thing we’ve seen play out in FBS games — the two that come to mind are Iowa State, which was the first one in 2008, and then Illinois three years ago, which is one of the first games the quarterback (Austin) Sumner played when he came on in relief — the speed was problematic from a turnover standpoint.
“Guys would throw the ball thinking they had a window. Well, you had a window against an FCS corner, but not against a Big Ten or Big 12 corner or safety. You have to be very measured about that, because a ball you might throw in practice won’t work in this game. The Jacks don’t have Missouri’s speed. They’re not considered a fast team by Missouri Valley Conference standards, let alone the SEC.”