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McCUTCHEON: Jackrabbits looking average as of late

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It has been a tale of two seasons in Brookings, and the Jackrabbit football team is only halfway through its schedule.

South Dakota State University started 2013 with three impressive wins, but has since faltered with three consecutive losses.

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Now SDSU will have to press hard through the second half of the season to be a part of the expanded 24-team playoff in the Football Championship Subdivision. The Jackrabbits will try to get back in the win column against Western Illinois today at 3 p.m. in Macomb, Illinois.

The season seemed to turn after the first quarter of the Jackrabbits’ game against Nebraska on Sept. 21. Through the first 15 minutes against the Cornhuskers, the Jacks were holding their own on the offensive side of the ball against the Football Bowl Subdivision power.

From that point, SDSU was blown out of the stadium in Lincoln, Neb., shut out back in Brookings by rival and No. 1-ranked North Dakota State, and humbled at home on by an unranked Southern Illinois team.

The Jacks have gone from No. 6 to No. 13 in the FCS and the emotions in Brookings have turned from hope-filled to anxiety.

What happened? Why has the lethal Jackrabbit offense suddenly lost its way, and why can’t the defense stop anyone?

Perhaps the expectations for SDSU after the first three weeks were too high.

Through the first half of the Jacks’ fourth game against Nebraska, star running back Zach Zenner had carried the ball 85 times for 713 yards, an average of 8.38 yards per carry. Zenner had also scored 10 touchdowns through his first 14 quarters of 2013.

Since then, Zenner has been shut down to the tune of 163 yards on 45 carries and two scores. His average per carry has been more than cut in half to a pedestrian 3.62.

The offense is run through Zenner. When the opposing defense does not move extra defenders into the box to stop the run, it eliminates the threat of the SDSU passing game.

After scoring through the air five times in the first three games of the season, quarterback Austin Sumner has been unable to find the end zone for the Jacks.

Looking at the where the Jacks rank in the FCS, the numbers look like those of a team that will win the same number of games as they lose.

SDSU ranks 61st in total offense and 51st in scoring out of the 125 FCS teams, putting up an average of 383.7 yards per game and 28 points.

Things get worse on defense. The Jacks are 90th in total defense, allowing 437 yards per game. Teams are also having no trouble putting up points, as coach John Stiegelmeier’s defense is giving up 29 per game.

Big plays have been the redeeming factor for the SDSU defense, as interceptions have kept the Jacks’ record from being worse. The Jacks are second in the FCS in interceptions with 11 picks, returning three of those for scores.

Without Zenner breaking long runs and Sumner seeing relaxed coverage in the secondary because of Zenner’s big-play prowess, the Jacks can’t score. And they need to score, because the defense seems to be playing a tackling-is-optional scheme lately, allowing 14 plays of more than 20 yards through the last three games.

While there isn’t another Nebraska on the schedule and no more dates with NDSU remain, the schedule in the second half will not be a breeze. Dates remain at home against a top-five Northern Iowa team that gave NDSU all it could handle last weekend, and a road matchup with a ranked Youngstown State team to end the regular season. SDSU is also going to see a lot of opposing locker rooms, as four of the team’s remaining six games are on the road.

SDSU sits in last place in the Missouri Valley Conference. If the Jacks want to be a part of the postseason, Zenner will have to be more of what he was in the first three games than what he has become in the last three, and the defense will have to continue making big plays to make up for the points being allowed.

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