BY JEREMY HOECK
VERMILLION — One month ago, South Dakota State was in danger of seeing its season fall short of the well-stated goal: Getting back to the FCS post-season.
That’s why Saturday’s game at the University of South Dakota was more than just a rivalry showdown. It was a must-win.
“I’ve never seen our Jackrabbit team in my tenure maybe as down as the Missouri State game,” head coach John Stiegelmeier said. “That’s when they rolled up their sleeves and went to work.”
Since that point, on Oct. 19, the Jacks (7-4, 4-3) have been in cannot-lose mode.
Following that road loss, SDSU has scored consecutive victories over Northern Iowa, Indiana State and USD by a 27-12 margin Saturday afternoon at the DakotaDome.
What seemed rather unlikely a month ago, the FCS playoffs are suddenly not all that far-fetched for the Jacks.
“I don’t know if, for us, it felt like a long shot,” junior running back Zach Zenner said. “We know the kind of team we are. We knew we let some go, not play to our potential, so this wasn’t out of the picture in our minds to do this.”
Though the Jackrabbits sit in fourth place in the league standings, they have the third-fewest losses. North Dakota State (10-0, 7-0) won the league title, while Youngstown State (8-3, 5-2) remains in the playoff hunt — Missouri State is out after finishing 5-7.
Put another way: Next Saturday’s showdown in Youngstown, Ohio, between the Penguins and Jackrabbits is a winner-in, loser-out scenario.
First, though, came the matter of beating a USD squad geared up to defend its home turf.
Looking across the table at his other three teammates, SDSU wide receiver Jason Schneider said when asked how big Saturday’s game was, “None of us are from South Dakota here, so it’s something new.”
“We knew it was a big game for the alumni, for the coaches, we just went out there and tried not think about the past,” he added. “Just focused on winning this game.”
Even having done that, SDSU wasn’t quite ready to talk about the Penguins yet.
“It’s good to get a win; definitely going to enjoy it, but then (Sunday) in film we’ll start getting ready for another must-win,” Zenner said.
Sold Out Crowd
Between the Fargodome at North Dakota State and the UNI-Dome at Northern Iowa, an indoor football setting is nothing new for South Dakota State, let alone its rivals at USD.
Even faced with a record sellout crowd of 10,845 at Saturday’s game at the DakotaDome, the Jackrabbits said they preferred such an atmosphere.
“I love when everyone’s against you,” linebacker R.C. Kilgore said. “It makes us play better when our backs are against the wall.
“It feels good to own the state one more year.”
The DakotaDome, did, however, cause some early issues for the Jackrabbits — as head coach John Stiegelmeier said it would.
On SDSU’s second drive of the game, the Jacks were whistled for three false start penalties in four plays. Two were flagged on senior Bryan Witzmann and the third on senior Alex Parker.
“I don’t think as a coach you can paint the picture of an environment like this,” Jacks head coach John Stiegelmeier said. “You have to be in it.”
The Coyotes, of late, haven’t played in front of such a home crowd. The attendance for Youngstown State and Montana the previous two weeks had been fewer than 7,000.
“As a football player, you always want to play in an atmosphere like that,” USD senior safety Devin Taverna said. “The Coyote Crazies on our side of the field were pretty loud.
“It creates an environment, gets everybody pumped up and ready to go.”
The loss was especially bitter for those Coyote seniors who were playing at the DakotaDome for the last time. USD travels to North Dakota State next Saturday.
“It would have been huge to get a win, going out in my senior year in the dome,” USD senior linebacker Tyler Starr said. “It’s a special place here, a special place to play. It just hurts right now.”
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