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South Dakota State football primer: Jackrabbits host Western Illinois in home conference opener

Off a 28-14 win over a top-10 Missouri State team last week, SDSU returns to Brookings to face winless Western Illinois ahead of a pair of rivalry games.

9-17-22SDSUvsButler-2.jpg
South Dakota State quarterback Mark Gronowski (11) stiff arms a Butler defender during a college football game on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, at Dykhouse Stadium, in Brookings.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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BROOKINGS, S.D. — Coming off a win in last week's top-10 clash at Missouri State, the South Dakota State football team opens its home conference slate by hosting Western Illinois. Here’s what to know ahead of the contest:

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Dykhouse Stadium, Brookings.

Records: SDSU 3-1 overall, 1-0 Missouri Valley; Western Illinois 0-4, 0-1 Missouri Valley.

Coaches: SDSU: John Stiegelmeier, 26th season, 188-112; WIU: Myers Hendrickson, fourth season (first at WIU), 31-9 (0-4 at WIU).

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Last meeting: The Jackrabbits made the trip to Macomb, Illinois, last season and left with a 41-17 victory after scoring the final 21 points of the Oct. 16, 2021 contest.

Series history: Saturday's game will be the 18th meeting between the Jackrabbits and Fighting Leathernecks and the 13th since SDSU joined the Football Championship Subdivision. Overall, SDSU holds a 12-5 lead in the series and has won 11 of 13 since 2007, including four straight.

The Leathernecks' two most recent wins both came in multi-overtime contests in Macomb. WIU has only defeated SDSU on its home field twice, both occurrences coming early in the series' history. The Leathernecks won the inaugural meeting in 1976 at Coughlin-Alumni Stadium and again in 1980, but have gone winless in their past six trips to Brookings.

Last week: SDSU went on the road and defeated then-No. 6 Missouri State, 28-14, to begin conference play. WIU opened up their MVFC schedule at home, failing 52-17 to a Northern Iowa team that also entered the game winless.

Notes:

  • After sharing possession of the No. 2 ranking in the Stats Perform FCS poll with Montana last week, SDSU reclaimed sole possession of that position and received three first-place votes this week. Montana returned to No. 3 despite getting seven first-place votes, while No. 1 North Dakota State received 44 first-place votes.
  • Televised coverage will be available through Midco Sports or ESPN+.
After struggling in the offensive game for the first two games, the Jackrabbits seem to have put those issues in the past

About the Jackrabbits:

  • Back-to-back games with more than 460 total yards of offense point to an SDSU offense that is back on track after a couple of early-season stumbles. Ahead of the Jackrabbits this week is, statistically, the worst defense in the MVFC, with the Leathernecks surrendering an average of nearly 518 yards and 43 points per game. SDSU's defense, meanwhile, is the conference's best, giving up 252 yards and 15 points per game.
  • Last season, the SDSU defense allowed just 237 total yards to WIU, limiting the ground game to 30 yards on 18 attempts. For the game, the Jackrabbits gave up just 3.4 yards per play while gaining 6.2 yards per play themselves.
  • Mark Gronowski is coming off a career-high passing output against Missouri State, completing 22-of-29 passes for 319 yards and four touchdowns in the win over the Bears. In his last game against the Leathernecks during the spring 2021 season, Gronowski passed for 178 yards and ran for 120 more while accounting for four total touchdowns — two through the air and two on the ground — as the Jackrabbits cruised to a 45-10 win. Running back Isaiah Davis also had plenty of success that afternoon against WIU, rolling to 118 yards and one touchdown on just nine carries.
  • Over the past five seasons, SDSU is 13-5 at home in MVFC play, though the Jackrabbits went 2-2 in such games last season, falling to Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa.

About the Leathernecks:

  • Since going 8-4 and making the FCS playoffs in 2017, the Western Illinois football program has experienced a steep decline. The Leathernecks went 5-6 in 2018 and have won just four of their 33 games since. WIU last won on Oct. 30, 2021, at home against Illinois State. Since the start of 2018, WIU is 3-17 in road games.
  • Quarterback has been an inconsistent position for the Leathernecks to start the season. Though he'd never seen the field before at WIU, Clay Bruno got the bulk of the snaps in the two most recent contests. Nick Davenport and Henry Ogala have also played significant time this season, as all three quarterbacks has registered at least 38 passing attempts, though with mixed results. The trio has combined to throw for 871 yards, seven touchdowns but also nine interceptions, with Bruno accounting for 386 yards, one touchdown and five interceptions. WIU quarterbacks have also been sacked a total of 10 times.
  • Success on the ground has been hard to come by for the Leathernecks. Though only playing in half the games to date, Bruno is also WIU's leading rusher at 110 yards on 31 attempts and scored the Leathernecks' lone rushing touchdown to date. The top two running backs on the roster — Erin Collins and Ludovick Choquette — have combined to carry the ball 49 times for 124 yards, an average of barely over 2.5 yards per carry.
  • WIU's defense is led by linebackers Chase Graham and Anthony Quinney, who pace the Leathernecks with 34 and 32 tackles, respectively. In addition to 19 tackles, defensive back J.J. Ross has the only two interceptions for WIU and five pass breakups. Going hand-in-hand with a unit that is giving up the most yards and points in the conference, opposing offenses are converting better than 40% of third down attempts and scored on 18 of 21 trips into the red zone with 15 of those ending in touchdowns.

Next week: SDSU stays at home to host rival South Dakota in the annual South Dakota Showdown Series game on Oct. 8. WIU is idle next week ahead of another road conference game at Southern Illinois.

Dierks covers prep and collegiate athletics across the Mitchell Republic's coverage region area, focusing on Mitchell High School football and boys basketball and area high school football, volleyball and basketball, as well as Dakota Wesleyan women's basketball. He was also the lead on the Mitchell Republic Gridiron Spotlight, producing video and providing live play-by-play for the traveling weekly prep football broadcast during its first season in the fall of 2021. Dierks is a Mitchell native who graduated from South Dakota State University with his bachelor's degree in journalism in May 2020. He joined the Mitchell Republic sports staff in August 2021. He can be reached at ldierks@mitchellrepublic.com and found on Twitter at @LDierksy.
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