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Jackrabbits look to reach third round for first time

South Dakota State University quarterback Austin Sumner (6) looks for an opening as Northern Arizona defenders close in during an NCAA college football game Saturday in Flagstaff, Ariz. Also pictured is SDSU offensive lineman and and Wagner native Trevor Greger (66). (AP photo)

The Jackrabbits set the mark by advancing to the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs last year, but Saturday, this year’s team is looking to go one step further.

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The Jackrabbits (9-4) return to the second round for the second straight season, where SDSU ended its season last year when it fell to North Dakota State University, which has been crowned national champion the past two years.

“That class that helped us get to the second round last year set the foundation,” SDSU right tackle and Wagner native Trevor Greger said. “Now we’re just trying to build on that and get further.”

The task won’t be an easy one as South Dakota State University faces No. 3 Eastern Washington University at 3 p.m. Central time Saturday in Cheney, Wash. EWU won the FCS title in 2010, and this is the first-ever meeting between the two schools.

This season marks the third time SDSU has made the FCS playoffs and the Jackrabbits hold a 2-2 record in Division I postseason games. The Jackrabbits received an at-large bid in all three of their playoff appearances, which include 2009, 2012 and 2013.

“It feels great to get back to this and we’re kind of starting a tradition,” Greger said. “We know what we’re capable of doing, but if we can win this game it will be a big step for the program, not just to be a top team that’s been there already, but to be the first team to make it past the second round.”

Coming into the contest as the underdogs, the Jackrabbits take on another challenge of playing on EWU’s unusual field. The bright red gridiron is something the Jackrabbits haven’t seen.

“You can’t really prepare for that,” Greger said. “It’s a unique field and the only thing we can really do is control what we can. We’ll probably spend an hour on the field when we get there to get used to it as much as we can.”

Greger has been a big part in helping SDSU senior running back Zach Zenner become the nation’s top rusher. Zenner has racked up 1,944 yards for an average of 149.5 yards per game. He has crossed the 100-yard mark in 12 of 13 games this season, including tying his own school record with 295 yards against the University of North Dakota Sept. 7.

“It feels great to be a part of what he’s done,” Greger said of blocking for the star running back. “If he gets an award, he always says it belongs for us too. It’s been humbling and fun.”

Another big part of the Jackrabbits’ offense this year is the passing ability of quarterback Austin Sumner. The senior has thrown for 2,684 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions on 214-of-368 passing for a completion percentage of 58.

The Jackrabbits have outscored their opponents 388-289 this season, averaging 29.8 points per contest.

“We’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing all season, controlling the ball and run when we need to,” Greger said. “We don’t really need to change anything up. It should work in our favor.”

An offensive battle is set up Saturday as EWU (10-2) averages 40.4 points per game this season.

SDSU must get past EWU’s powerful pass attack. Sophomore quarterback Vernon Adams — one of three finalists for the Walter Payton award — is ranked third among FCS teams in passing yards with 4,059. The Eagles lead the nation in passing efficiency (185.25), third in passing offense with an average of 359.3 yards per game and eighth in scoring with an average of 40.4 points per game.

His top targets are Cooper Kupp and Ashton Clark. Kupp has caught a touchdown pass in all 12 games this year, recording 77 receptions for 1,378 — an FCS freshman record. Kupp has hauled in 18 touchdown receptions. Clark has 63 catches for 914 yards and nine touchdowns.

The Jackrabbits’ leader defensively is R.C. Kilgore with a team-best 122 tackles. He also has two interceptions, five fumble recoveries and a sack on the year.

Brooke Cersosimo
Brooke Cersosimo is The Daily Republic's sports editor.