Running game powering South Dakota State football into FCS quarterfinals

Marcus Traxler, The Daily Republic, Mitchell, S.D.
·5 min read

Apr. 30—Take the "three yards and a cloud of dust" offense. And double it.

Operating at a rate of six yards per carry, the South Dakota State University football team's rushing game is powering the No. 1 overall seed in the FCS playoffs, churning toward a potential national championship with strength and speed.

The Jackrabbits' rushing game has been anything but plodding, rushing for nearly 1,500 yards over the last five games, which started with a 44-3 blowout of Southern Illinois on March 20 in Carbondale, Illinois. That included 392 yards of rushing from the Jackrabbits.

The two Missouri Valley Football Conference foes will meet again in Sunday's FCS quarterfinals at 8 p.m. from Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings.

During SDSU's current five-game winning streak, the Jackrabbits have rushed for 1,467 yards (293.4 per game) and 13 touchdowns. SDSU is averaging 6.7 yards per carry in that span.

Playing with physicality and executing on offense is the Jackrabbits' mindset, coach John Stiegelmeier said this week.

"That's our recipe, if you will," he said. "We game plan like that. We don't expect that to happen but we work hard at being able to run the football."

The Jacks (6-1) rank second nationally in yards per carry, only behind Incarnate Word (Texas), and lead the stat among playoff teams.

SDSU has benefitted from running behind an offensive line that includes three upperclassmen, including senior center and Parkston native Wes Genant, senior right guard Eagan Lickiss, and junior left tackle Aron Johnson.

Sophomore left guard Mason McCormick, a Sioux Falls Roosevelt alum, and right tackle Garret Greenfield, of Rock Valley, Iowa, round out the starting five on the offensive line. All of them measure at least 6-foot-4 and nearly 300 pounds, and SDSU typically runs from formations that include two tight ends, as well.

Behind that offensive line, SDSU's two primary running backs have shown an ability to break big runs. Pierre Strong Jr. has 529 yards for the season and just two touchdowns, but has been explosive when he's been healthy this year. Of his 21 career touchdown runs, they've come from an average of 33 yards out.

The Jackrabbits' freshmen have gained the majority of the rushing yards this season. Running back Isaiah Davis, a true freshman from Joplin, Missouri, has rushed for 468 yards and five touchdowns. Mark Gronowski has rushed for 398 yards from the quarterback position and six touchdowns.

In the words of Southern Illinois coach Nick Hill, Strong is a "smooth operator," with a knack for finding the hole, making a defender miss a tackle and busting the big run. Davis is the downhill back, with enough speed to "hit the home run."

In the aftermath of SDSU's 31-3 first round win over Holy Cross on April 24, McCormick said that the three weeks off due to COVID-19 cancelations and postponements served as a miniature preseason camp for the Jackrabbits, getting a chance to be fresh again and focus on execution. They've looked sharp ever since.

"The offense has started playing with more confidence," Gronowski said. "Only we can stop ourselves ... we're playing better as a unit."

Scouting the Salukis

The fallout of that 44-3 loss hangs over the second matchup, although neither team expects the other to deviate much from their original gameplan. SIU led the game 3-0 until late in the second quarter, when SDSU scored its first touchdown with 4:04 left before halftime.

The Salukis then fumbled the ensuing kickoff and SDSU scored three plays later for a 14-3 lead. An SDSU interception before halftime led to a field goal, and two interceptions on the first three passes of the second half turned the game to 31-3 in favor of the Jackrabbits in the span of about 11 minutes of game time. SDSU rushed 61 times for 392 yards to punish the Salukis (6-3), who won on a fourth-and-goal touchdown pass late at Weber State 34-31 last week to advance to the quarterfinals.

"Until you do something differently about it, you are what the score says you are," SIU coach Nick Hill said. "That's the mentality we'll have. We have to go out and earn our respect. ... If you don't take some licks from a game like that and own it, shame on you."

SIU's offense has stabilized under quarterback Stone Labanowitz, who has thrown for seven touchdowns, one interception and completed 73% of his passes since March 13. Receiver Avante Cox is the Salukis' most dangerous player, with 780 receiving yards on 61 catches and five touchdowns this season.

Sunday's game will be televised on ESPN2, the first nationally televised football game to originate from the SDSU campus.

The game will also be available to more fans in the stadium The NCAA is allowing up to 50 percent capacity for outdoors postseason events for the remainder of the postseason, meaning stadium capacity has been raised upwards of 9,000, rather than being capped at 25% in Round 1.

SDSU enters the game 28-5 all-time since Dykhouse Stadium opened in 2016 and have won eight of the last nine meetings with Southern Illinois dating back to 2008.

The winner of Sunday's game takes on either fourth-seeded Jacksonville State (Ala.) or Delaware. If the Jackrabbits win, they'll host that game on either May 8 or May 9. The FCS championship game is May 16 in Frisco, Texas.