South Dakota State Preview: #15 Jackrabbits Host #8 Western Illinois
The match-up is the same for the 15th ranked Jackrabbits (1-2) - a date with eighth ranked Western Illinois (3-0). The venue is different - SDSU's new Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium, not WIU's Hanson Field. The weather will certainly be better. Saturday's high temperature in Brookings is expected to hit 68 degrees, with a light breeze. That's quite an upgrade from that chilly November day in Macomb 10 months ago, where a blizzard delayed the start of the game by 90 minutes, and the thermometer read 30 degrees at kickoff with a 25 mile per hour wind.
It was on that brutal winter day that the Leathernecks derailed SDSU's season.
The fifth ranked Jackrabbits were a victory away from securing their first ever top eight seed, and the first round bye that came with it, in the FCS Playoffs. But a 30-24 Western Illinois double overtime win changed everything. Instead of getting a week off and staying home for round two of the playoffs, SDSU had to go on the road for round one, ending their season a week later with a loss at Montana.
A lot of the key players are back for the rematch, but there's been a big change on the Leathernecks' sideline, where former Richmond offensive coordinator Charlie Fisher is the new head coach, taking over for Bob Nielson, who's now running the South Dakota program.
Fisher inherited quite a bit of talent on the offensive side of the ball.
Quarterback Sean McGuire is the Missouri Valley Conference and National FCS Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for 315 yards and a touchdown, while running for a score against Northern Illinois last week. Since taking over as a starter midway thru last season, McGuire is 6-1.
McGuire has been protected well by a veteran offensive line that has only allowed four sacks in three games.
The Leathernecks boast two of the top receivers in the league. Lance Lenoir is third among active FCS players with 214 career catches and 22 receiving touchdowns. Joey Borsellino caught nine passes for 148 yards in the Northern Illinois game. Lenoir and Borsellino combined for ten catches and 176 yards against the SDSU defense last year.
Running back Steve McShane has emerged as a star this season. The sophomore leads the nation in rushing yards (147 per game), is third in all-purpose yards (182 per game), and sixth in rushing tocudowns (5).
The Western Illinois offense has yet to turn the ball over this season and is averaging 33 points per game.
Defensively, linebacker Brett Taylor is one of the best in the MVFC. He's first in the conference, and fourth nationally, in tackles (12 per game). He recorded 11 stops against SDSU in 2015. Defensive back Xavier Rowe is sixth in the league in tackles (eight per game).
The Leathernecks have five sacks, have forced four turnovers, and is giving up an average of 21 points this season.
South Dakota State is averaging nearly 43 points per game, thanks to nearly 420 yards in total offense each time out. Wide receiver Jake Wieneke and tight end Dallas Goedert are off to outstanding starts with 34 catches and 11 touchdowns between them. Quarterback Taryn Christion has thrown 10 touchdowns against just one interception, and has run for two scores.
The defense, meanwhile, has forced six turnovers which have led to 35 SDSU points. Linebacker Jesse Bobbit leads the way with 29 tackles and is one of four players with an interception. Defensive back Dallas Brown has three-and-a-half tackles for loss.
But three games in, there are some trends developing that are causing a lot of head scratching in Brookings.
The SDSU defense has allowed an average of 250 yards rushing and has sacked the opposing quarterback just three times (all against Drake). The offensive line, meanwhile, has given up seven sacks during that time.
The defense is allowing 42 points per game and has been unsuccessful stopping the opposition on third down 56 percent of the time. The unit has been stingy in the first quarter, allowing just 14 points, but has had trouble finishing games, yielding 49 points in the final 15 minutes.
The latest team to put up gaudy numbers against the Jackrabbits is Cal Poly, who left Dykhouse Stadium with more than 600 yards of total offense, including 440 on the ground in a 38-31 win, two weeks ago.
Kickoff against Western Illinois is 6:00 PM, Saturday, in Brookings. South Dakota State is looking to win a Missouri Valley Conference opener for the first time since 2012.
I talked with SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier about last week's bye and the league opener with the Leathernecks: