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Permalink 10/21/09 , CSN West, CSN Columns

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CSN West: Football Fortunes Change in the Dakotas

floated rightBy Kent Schmidt, CSN West Columnist

South Dakota State never has been part of the DII playoff party in my memory. And the Jackrabbits never will play in the DII playoffs. Just to clarify, they did participate once in the DII playoff prior to my memory in 1979 when the Jackrabbits lost in the first round to Youngstown State.

Boy, how things have changed - especially this year. South Dakota State ranks in the Top 10 in the GPI in a division higher now and sits with a 5-1 overall and 4-0 MVFC league mark. The other three Dakota schools can’t smell the Top 25 as all have records at or under the .500 mark.

South Dakota State appears to have a chance to do something it hasn’t done in 30 years — play in the postseason and possibly earn its second league championship in three years (something it hasn’t done since 1963 before winning the Great West in 2007).

...

As many of you know, I grew up in the southeastern quarter of North Dakota in a small town named LaMoure. I lived in a rural area that had television coverage from 100 miles away in Fargo, and we also could pick up the TV stations from Aberdeen, S.D., which also was around 90 miles away from my childhood farm.

Living where I did, it was a good area to see sports coverage of all four major Dakota universities. My knowledge base goes back as far as 1981 or 1982. Of the four major universities (University of North Dakota, North Dakota State, University of South Dakota and South Dakota State), all played (at the time) in the now-defunct Division II North Central Conference. Throughout my memory of the NCC, UND, NDSU and USD, all fielded DII playoff teams and teams that went as far as the national title game throughout their DII days.

How do we explain the SDSU turnaround?

SDSU’s turnaround started after the Jackrabbits moved up to the FCS ranks from Division II. Two years ago, in SDSU’s last transitional year, it won the Great West title in its last season before moving to the Missouri Valley Football Conference. SDSU won the GWC title with a 7-4 mark overall.

You could even move further back when Coach John Stiegelmeier took the reins in 1997. Stiegelmeier was a student assistant in 1979 when the Jacks last made the playoffs. But he has slowly built a team through time that is competitive in the FCS ranks.

This is despite the fact that SDSU has less than steller facilities than its Dakota school competitors. SDSU has posted seven consecutive winning seasons, including the school’s first five campaigns at the FCS level. The Jackrabbits have had a winning record in 10 of Stiegelmeier’s 12 years as head coach, including five with seven or more victories.

Coach Stig is a South Dakota native, and he has spent 23 years in Brookings. He became an assistant in 1988 and became SDSU’s head coach in 1997.

To sum up the FCS years, here is the following totals for Coach Stig’s team:

After posting back-to-back 6-5 first DI seasons in 2004 and 2005, the Jackrabbits went another notch higher in 2006 as they compiled a 7-4 overall record and finished ranked in the Top 25 in all major polls to end the season. Following a 0-3 start, the Jackrabbits rebounded by winning seven consecutive games for the first time since 1963. Three of the victories came in the closing minutes against nationally ranked teams, setting up a showdown with North Dakota State on the final week of the season for the Dakota Marker and Great West Football Conference title. Although SDSU fell short in the championship game, the Jackrabbits finished with their most victories since 2003 and their best mark in the three-year history of the GWFC at 3-1.

During the 2007 season, SDSU claimed its first conference title since 1963 by winning the Great West Football Conference championship. After starting 0-3 for the second consecutive season, SDSU reeled off seven victories in its final eight games. The streak included a 29-24 victory over previously undefeated North Dakota State the final week of the season to claim the GWC title with a 7-4 overall record and 4-0 mark in league play.

Last year, the Jackrabbits entered an automatic bid conference when they joined the nine-team Missouri Valley Football Conference. With the transition from Division II done, SDSU fell just short of a playoff berth in its first season of eligibility, ending the year with a 7-5 overall record and 6-2 mark in the MVFC. Of SDSU’s five losses, four came against ranked FCS teams.

How have the Jackrabbits raced out to a good start so far in 2009 and what is remaining?

In their 5-1 overall and 4-0 start, SDSU has lost just to also Top 25 ranked Cal Poly (21-14) but all the five victories have been to teams outside of the Top 25. The five victories have come against the Southern Conference’s Georgia Southern (44-6), and MVFC mates Indiana State (41-0), Illinois State (38-17), Missouri State (24-17), and Dakota Marker rival North Dakota State (28-13).

The players that have guided the Jackrabbits this year are junior running back Kyle Minett and senior defensive end Danny Batten. Both have led their sides of the ball. Minett has four 100-yard games and has 694 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground and added one threw the air as well. Batten is a Buchanan Award Watch List member and leads the team in tackles for a loss with an astounding 11.5 and also leads the team in sacks with four.

One area the Jackrabbits have overcome has been the loss of their starting quarterback Ryan Crawford, who was injured in the Cal Poly game. Backup Thomas O’Brien has played well enough to help the Jacks win their last two games.

The Jackrabbits will have the meat of their season in the last five games. Starting this week, SDSU will host Top 10 Northern Iowa, travel to a near Top 25 team in Youngstown State, host another Top 10 in Southern Illinois, travel to FBS Minnesota and have what they might consider a breather in comparison in a road game at 1-5 Western Illinois.

SDSU, however, does have the two toughest teams in Brookings in UNI and SIU, which are the main competition for the MVFC crown. They also face FBS Minnesota.

While it might be a tough chore to defeat both of these two or Minnesota, it is not inconceivable. This Dakota boy has not just started to believe in Coach Stig’s team, I also am thinking it should really start being considered one of the FCS elite teams.

We shall see how the next few weeks plays out, but I won’t be one bit surprised if SDSU finishes in a position for a playoff spot or even atop the MVFC standings - this team is that good. And for a team that would have been rated fourth-best among the four major Dakota schools a couple of decades ago, now can boast as being the best of the four for sure this year.

* * *

CSN WEST GAME OF THE WEEK

Northern Iowa (5-2, 3-1) @ South Dakota State (5-1, 4-0), 2 p.m. Central

These two old North Central Conference rivals have had a one-sided affair after the two rekindled their rivalry when SDSU moved up to the DI ranks. UNI has won all three meetings while the two teams have been DI. These three meetings were the first between these two schools since 1979.

A year ago, UNI defeated SDSU 34-20. This will be Hobo Day (Homecoming) in Brookings (and not that it should be needed for this battle of Top 10 GPI teams (SDSU #10 and UNI #6), but Coughlin-Alumni Stadium should be at capacity for this game.

UNI brings in an offense that ranks second in the nation in scoring offense (38.71 points per game) and has outscored the opposition 271-92 this season. UNI has been especially dominant in the first half of games outscoring the opponent, 163-26.

UNI is coming off a 27-20 loss to Southern Illinois in the UNI-Dome to give the Panthers their first FCS loss. The other loss was a one-point heartbreaker to Top 10 FBS ranked Iowa.

As mentioned above, SDSU’s lone loss was at GPI#17 Cal Poly 21-14.

SDSU likely will need to use its running attack and control the ball to keep the high-potent offense of UNI off the field. Weather in the later part of October in the upper Midwest also can play a factor in an outdoor stadium, but it appears from weather.com, the weather will be nice on Saturday afternoon with Brooking seeing a high of 50 degrees with partly cloudy skies.

I know this is Hobo Day in Brookings and I will get a chance to see that firsthand as I will travel to Brookings for this game. I think, however, that UNI will be able to come back from last week’s home defeat to win this road game, but I believe this game will come down to the last quarter. I will take the Panthers by a late touchdown.
UNI 27 SDSU 20

* * *

CSN WEST NEWS & NOTES

+ Weber State wide receiver/return man Tim Toone set a Big Sky Conference record with a 95-yard punt return for a touchdown in Weber State’s 49-10 victory over Sacramento State. The 95-yard score bettered the previous record shared by three players by one yard. Weber State’s Randal Anderson was the first player to record a 94-yard punt return for a touchdown in 1971. Montana’s Tuff Harris tied the mark in 2006, and Grizzly Marc Marian became the third last season.

+ Montana held off Eastern Washington 41-34 in Missoula in another wild game between the rivals. Montana’s Chase Reynolds scored the game-winning touchdown on a 1-yard run with 1:18 to play. UM opted to go for the touchdown instead of trying a field goal on fourth-and-1. Eastern Washington had 489 yards of total offense compared with 353 for Montana.

+ Northern Colorado’s 30-7 triumph at Idaho State was its first Big Sky Conference road victory, and it snapped a 19-game overall road losing streak. Northern Colorado hadn’t won on the road since beating Texas State 14-13 in 2006. NC’s 14-game conference road losing streak is the record, but that mark could be matched this week by Idaho State. The Bengals head to Northern Arizona with a 13-game conference road losing streak and a 19-game overall road losing streak.

+ Montana State is the only team remaining in FCS and one of three teams at the Division I level that has not allowed a rushing touchdown this season. Oklahoma and Tulsa are the other two squads that have not allowed a rushing touchdown.

+ Eastern Washington All-American wide receiver Aaron Boyce sustained a season-ending and thus collegiate-ending injury late in EWU’s 41-34 loss to Montana. Boyce sustained a ruptured Achilles tendon. Before the injury, Boyce caught seven passes for 114 yards with a 50-yard touchdown late in the third quarter that tied the game 27-27. It was the 13th 100-yard game of his career. Boyce finished his career with 222 receptions for 3,330 yards and 29 touchdowns.

+ Montana State played its first overtime game since 2004, edging South Dakota 31-24. Montana State played two in 2004. The Bobcats beat Portland State 31-24 in overtime on Oct. 16, 2004, and lost to Eastern Washington 51-44 on Nov. 13. On Saturday, Cody Kempt completed a 36-yard TD pass to Elvis Akpla on MSU’s first possession. South Dakota drove to the Montana State 3-yard line on its possession. On fourth down, the Coyotes dropped a pass in the end zone. MSU jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but found itself trailing 27-24 late in the fourth quarter. Jason Cunningham tied the game with a 21-yard field goal with 38 seconds remaining in regulation. It was USD’s second straight OT loss. The Coyotes lost to UC Davis at home the week before 24-23.

+ Eastern Washington quarterback Matt Nichols is on the verge of moving into the top five on the Big Sky’s all-time passing yards and total offense list. Nichols enters Saturday’s game against Montana State with 10,627 yards, which puts him in ninth place. He needs 71 yards to move past Northern Arizona’s Greg Wyatt and Idaho’s John Friesz, 100 yards to move past NAU’s Jason Murrietta, 120 yards to get by Montana State’s Travis Lulay and 198 yards to move into fourth place, ahead of Idaho’s Doug Nussmeier at 10,824.

+ Montana set another Washington-Grizzly Stadium attendance record last week with 25,751 at the EWU game. Montana leads FCS in average attendance at 25,717.

+ Missouri State rallied from a 16-0 deficit to defeat Western Illinois, 17-16, on the strength of a Matt Hottelman field goal in the last minute. It marked the second time that MSU and WIU have hooked up in a game decided by a single point.

+ All-America TE Clay Harbor of Missouri State has at least one pass reception in 29 straight games. That streak is now the second-longest string in Bears’ history (the record is 33 by Jason Cannon, 1995-97). It’s tied for the ninth-best streak in the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s 25-year history.

+ Southern Illinois’ Deji Karim is on pace to set the MVFC’s single-season record for all-purpose yards, and he’s on pace to do it in 11 games. Karim leads the league now with 1,330 all-purpose yards, and he’s on pace to reach 2,435 in SIU’s 11-game regular-season schedule.

+ Including South Dakota State and Southern Illinois this year, a MVFC team has started conference play with a 4-0 record 26 times. All but one (Western Kentucky in 2005) finished second or better in the league standings. Nineteen of the previous 24 with 4-0 or better starts earned playoff berths, while 17 won the league title.

+ Ryan Shotwell equalled his career-high with three sacks, forced a fumble, broke up a pass and hurried the quarterback twice in Cal Poly’s 24-23 Great West Conference triumph over Southern Utah. SUU had a chance to tie with an extra point after a touchdown but missed it to give the Mustangs the victory in San Luis Obispo.

+ UD Davis wide receiver/kick returner Joseph Gray returned a kickoff 81 yards for a touchdown during the third quarter to help the Aggies’ to a 45-14 victory over Winston-Salem State.

+ Last year’s NAIA champion Sioux Falls stunned North Dakota 28-13 in Grand Forks. USF quarterback Lorenzo Brown threw three touchdown passes and ran for another score in leading the Cougars to a stunning victory over the Fighting Sioux.

CSN WEST CURRENT GPI RANKINGS

2. Great West Conference (27.25)
17. Cal Poly SLO (18.75)
23. UC Davis (22.75)
32. Southern Utah (28.88)
35. North Dakota (31.50)
40. South Dakota (34.38)

3. Missouri Valley Football Conference (32.65)
4. S Illinois (4.50)
6. Northern Iowa (5.75)
10. S Dakota St (11.25)
26T. Missouri St (25.88)
36. Youngstown St (31.75)
51. Illinois St (42.00)
53. W Illinois (44.38)
57. N Dakota St (47.38)
114. Indiana St (81.00)

4. Big Sky Conference (33.00)
2. Montana (2.25)
15. N Arizona (15.88)
16. Weber St (16.25)
21. Montana St (22.00)
22. E Washington (22.38)
55. Sacramento St (46.63)
61. Portland St (48.63)
66T. N Colorado (50.00)
101. Idaho St (73.00)

15. Pioneer Football League (82.79)
68. Drake (50.13)
86. Dayton (64.25)
90. Butler (66.00)
97. San Diego (69.50)
105T. Marist (74.75)
109. Jacksonville (76.63)
119. Davidson (83.63)
122. Morehead St (86.13)
123. Valparaiso (86.88)
125. Campbell (87.25)