Hello from Bozeman, Montana as the Jacks get prepared for their 1st round playoff matchup with the Bobcats.
For the third straight season, South Dakota State has made it to the FCS playoffs. And for the second season in a row, they needed a winning streak at the end of the year to make it there.
While not quite as dramatic as last year’s winning streak to end the season (which, by the way, might’ve been a lot different ha d Northern Iowa’s kicker made a chip-shot at the end of regulation), this year’s rise to playoff contention is still notable for several reasons:
1. The obvious is the return of Austin Sumner, who’s playing like a man who knows his football career can end at any time. Because his broken foot in the season opener at Missouri did not qualify as a ‘season-ending’ injury, he wasn’t going to be allowed to redshirt this season. That would be frustrating for anyone, let alone SDSU’s all-time passing leader. While he wasn’t completely healthy when he came back against NDSU on November 1, in the three games since then, he’s played like a man possessed. He has 1,059 yards and 11 TD in that timeframe, but what’s most impressive to me is his pinpoint accuracy. This is a man who knows the offense, knows the weapons he has and knows how to use them.
2. The continued emergence of redshirt freshman wide receiver Jake Wieneke is just remarkable. He was awarded the Missouri Valley freshman of the year award earlier this week and rightfully so. More than 1,000 yards and 15 TD made it a no-brainer. What’s amazing is he scored a touchdown in every Missouri Valley Conference game this season, other teams in the Valley knew it, and they still couldn’t stop him. Now, having Jason Schneider on the other side certainly helps, but Wieneke hasn’t missed a beat regardless of matchups or coverages.
3. A defense that’s playing a lot better in recent weeks. This isn’t a line that’s going to get a lot of sacks, but the secondary is playing its best football at the right time. Guys like Je Ryan Butler, Melvin Taveras and freshman Trey Carr are not allowing big passing plays and that’ll be key against whomever Montana State throws out there at quarterback (more on that later). It’s cliché to say this is a ‘bend, don’t break’ defense, but they’re consistent in terms of crowding the middle and not allowing guys to get anything extra out of a single play. You’ll notice on 3rd & long situations, SDSU loves to have just three down linemen and clog the middle to make sure the gaps are all filled. They don’t blitz a lot and they don’t get a lot of pressure consistently, but they’ve eliminated the big play and that’s what you need when your own offense hits on several big plays.
So let’s get to this Montana State matchup. Like the Jacks, the Bobcats are also 8-4, but they come from the Big Sky conference, which hasn’t had a lot of luck against the Valley in recent postseasons. Nevertheless, the biggest challenge may come from the fact that as of Friday night, no one knows which QB is starting for Montana State. Dakota Prukop, the Bobcats regular starter and a read-option threat, hurt his knee two weeks ago and is officially questionable. The backup QB, Jake Bleskin, hurt his shoulder in the Bobcats season finale loss to Montana and is also questionable. The 3rd string QB is true freshman Quinn McQueary who has yet to start a game. Either way, the Jacks have had to gameplan for three possible QBs and be prepared for pretty much any and everything.
From a defensive standpoint, the true mismatch is the Bobcats D vs. the Jacks O. Montana State finished last in the Big Sky in total defense, giving up more than 400 yards per game. Considering the Jacks have topped more than 500 yards in the past three games, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why that’s good for SDSU. Yet the Jacks will still want to establish the run and in talking with some Montana State people this week, that’s what the Bobcats are focused on. It’s funny to me because, as great as Zach Zenner is, that is ALL SDSU opponents ever talk about. Austin Sumner, Jason Schneider, and Jake Wieneke are hardly, if ever, mentioned. What does that mean in the long run? I have no idea, but I just find it weird and humorous that Zenner seems to have created this larger-than-life persona in the FCS world that dwarfs his own team. He’s worth all the hype, don’t get me wrong, but SDSU has plenty of other weapons.
I have a feeling the Bobcats will find out about those weapons on Saturday. We’ll have complete coverage online and on Midco Sports Network all next week. For now, enjoy the following SDSU-Tube video blogs.
In this one, Tom Nieman and I discuss the USD win and look ahead to the Montana State matchup:
In this next SDSU-Tube, we hear from Jay Sanderson, the radio voice of Montana State. He discusses the QB situation and how the team is trying to move on after a bad regular season finale against Montana.
Finally, the radio voice of the Jackrabbits Tyler Merriam and I discuss the game from Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman, Montana.