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Jackrabbits open playoff run

South Dakota State University co-captain and Winner High School graduate Seth Daughters runs the ball in a Division I college football game earlier this season. (Courtesy of SDSU Sports Information)

BROOKINGS -- The South Dakota State University Jackrabbits are looking to garner their first-ever NCAA playoff victory as they host the Eastern Illinois University Panthers in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs at 2 at Coughlin-Alumni Stadium in Brookings.

The Jackrabbits' greatest weapon is their offense, which could be the team's best defense.

The SDSU offense is led by sophomore Zach Zenner, who has rushed for 1,703 yards on 252 carries this season.

Zenner's rushing yards are the most of any Jackrabbit since the team moved up to the Division I level.

The Jackrabbits (8-3) will need a good game from Zenner and his offensive line in order to slow down an explosive Eastern Illinois offense.

"There is a residual effect by running the football," said SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier. "We have a greater time of possession, so we keep their offense off the field."

The Panthers (7-4) rank seventh in the country in scoring offense and sixth in passing offense.

The EIU offense has rolled up the points and yardage this year behind the arm of junior quarterback Jimmy Garappolo, who has thrown for 3,601 yards and 31 touchdowns this season.

Garappolo's favorite target is Ohio Valley Conference offensive player of the year Erik Lora, who has hauled in a school record 124 balls for 1,520 yards and 12 touchdowns.

"We have to slow them down," Stiegelmeier said. "They are a fast-break, full-speed team."

The Jackrabbits defense will have its hands full trying to stop the fast-paced offense of the Panthers but will rely on its front seven to halt all progress the EIU offense will attempt to make.

Linebackers Ross Shafrath and T.J. Lally lead the heart of the SDSU defense with 125 and 89 tackles, respectively. Defensive lineman Doug Peete, who is tied for the team lead in sacks with six will look to pressure Garrapolo and force the EIU offense to make mistakes.

Stiegelmeier said SDSU is ready to be in this position. It's the first home playoff game in school history.

"I think whether it's at home or not doesn't matter," Stiegelmeier said. "It shows progress that we have been eligible to compete in the playoffs for five years and this is our second time in."