South Dakota State football primer: Jackrabbits seek season-opening win at Iowa
The FCS No. 2 Jackrabbits open their 2022 season at FBS Iowa on Saturday.
BROOKINGS, S.D. — An Upper Midwest clash between one of the region's best from each Division I football subdivision takes center stage during Week 1 of the 2022 season, as South Dakota State is on the road to take on the University of Iowa. Here’s what to know ahead of the contest:
11 a.m. Saturday
Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, Iowa.
Records (last season):
SDSU 11-4 overall, 5-3 Missouri Valley; Iowa 10-4 overall, 7-2 Big Ten.
SDSU: John Stiegelmeier, 26th season, 185-111; Iowa: Kirk Ferentz, 24th season, 178-110.
Under John Stiegelmeier, SDSU owns a 16-9 record in season openers, while Iowa is 19-4 with Kirk Ferentz at the helm.
Despite their relative proximity, the Jackrabbits, of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), and Hawkeyes, of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), have never met on the gridiron.
- Saturday's game will be nationally televised on Fox Sports 1 (FS1).
- For the first time since 2018, Iowa is not ranked in the preseason AP Top 25, sitting as the third-leading vote-getter (163 votes) outside the rankings after finishing last season ranked No. 23.
- In the Stats Perform FCS Top 25, SDSU was the only program other than North Dakota State to receive a first-place vote and starts the season ranked No. 2 behind their northern rivals. The Jackrabbits have now been ranked in the top 25 of 132 consecutive media polls, which dates back to October 2012.
About the Jackrabbits:
- SDSU was picked to finish second in the MVFC (behind NDSU), according to a preseason poll by coaches, information directors and select media. The Bison, defending conference and national champions, took the top spot with 39 first-place votes and 446 points, followed by the Jackrabbits with the two remaining first-place votes and 407 points.
- In 11 games against FBS opposition, SDSU is 2-9, but the Jackrabbits are coming off a win last year and a statement one at that. To open the 2021 season, SDSU took Colorado State to task on its home field, winning 42-23. Coincidentally, Iowa also matched up with CSU as part of the 2021 nonconference slate, with the Hawkeyes defeating the Rams, 24-14, in Iowa City. The Jackrabbits’ other FBS win came in 2015 when they beat Kansas, which went on to go winless that season, 41-38. Five of the nine season-opening losses on Stiegelmeier's record were to FBS programs.
- Of note to area high school football supporters, Kimball native Bo Donald is the projected starter at right guard. It would be the second career start for the 6-foot-6, 300-pound lineman, after starting once late in 2021 at right tackle. Bowling Green transfer John O'Brian is set to make his SDSU debut at right tackle, as injuries forced the Jackrabbits to shuffle the offensive line.
About the Hawkeyes:
- In 10 games against the FCS dating back to 2007, Iowa is 9-1. with the lone blemish during that span coming in 2016 when the 13th-ranked Hawkeyes fell to North Dakota State. Saturday will be the first game Iowa has played against FCS opposition since 2018 (a 38-14 win over Northern Iowa), but of the eight other wins, only two — 2009 and 2014, both against UNI — were decided by one score.
- The Hawkeyes return 17 starters (eight offense, seven defense, two specialists) from last year's team that started 6-0 to reach the No. 2 ranking in the AP Top 25 and won the Big Ten West division.
- Iowa’s 126-person roster features 86 underclassmen (56 freshmen and 30 sophomores), which is tied for 12th-most in the nation as the Hawkeyes are the second-youngest team in the Big Ten.
South Dakota State
While the Jackrabbits replace several multi-year starters on both sides of the football, the roster is still flush with talent. Offensively, that starts with quarterback Mark Gronowski, the MVFC's 2021 spring season player of the year who returns to the starting role following injury and has several options to spread the ball around to.
With Pierre Strong Jr moving on to the NFL, the backfield belongs to another one of the best in the FCS in running back Isaiah Davis, who scored six touchdowns and rushed for nearly 500 yards in the 2021 fall postseason alone and has a pair of preseason All-Americans (Garret Greenfield and Mason McCormick) blocking for him.
Tight ends Tucker Kraft, one of the top NFL Draft prospects at his position in the country, and Zach Heins stand alongside twin wide receivers Jaxon and Jadon Janke, of Madison, as a threatening quartet that posted more than 2,800 combined receiving yards last fall and should be capable of finding space against a usually staunch Hawkeye defense.
Flipping sides, SDSU's defense is anchored in the middle by linebacker Adam Bock, a new team captain in 2022, and safety-turned-linebacker Isaiah Stalbird. The Jackrabbits are also strong up front, with defensive linemen Reece Winkelman and Caleb Sanders leading the way. Both have at least 15 sacks and 30 tackles for loss in their careers, which are among the best marks in SDSU history.
On offense, quarterback Spencer Petras, who returns as a senior with 19 career starts, will be looked to for continuity in the Hawkeyes' offense following the departure of 1,100-yard rusher Tyler Goodson to the NFL. Petras' top two targets from last season — tight end Sam LaPorta and receiver Keegan Johnson — also return.
LaPorta is the latest in a long lineage of productive Iowa tight ends, with several going on to successful NFL careers (the Lions' T.J. Hockenson, Seahawks' Noah Fant and 49ers' George Kittle are recent examples). Meanwhile, Johnson, the younger brother of former SDSU standout Cade Johnson, was the best wide receiver on the Iowa roster last season despite being a true freshman.
Defensively, Iowa sported one of the top defenses in the FBS, allowing 19.2 points (15th nationally) and 327 yards (19th) per game in 2021. That all started on the back end, with the Hawkeyes intercepting 24 passes to lead the nation. Cornerback Riley Moss, last season's Big Ten defensive back of the year, brings 26 career starts and 10 career interceptions (three returned for touchdowns) to the lineup.
Among the projected front seven, only one has fewer than nine career starts. This group is anchored by linebackers Seth Benson, a Sioux Falls native, and Jack Campbell, the nation's leading tackler (143 total) from last season and 2022 preseason Big Ten defensive player of the year.
Keys for SDSU
Limit downfield plays
Iowa had a rather anemic offense last season with Spencer Petras at the helm, and forcing the ball downfield was not an area the Hawkeyes excelled in. If Iowa can push the ball downfield SDSU could be in some serious trouble.
Mediocre quarterback play coupled with a mediocre offensive line is typically not a recipe for success. That's what Iowa was dealing with last year, even with first-round pick Tyler Linderbaum at center. With Linderbaum gone, the Jackrabbits will need to capitalize and put pressure on Spencer Petras to force mistakes and disrupt his timing.
Don't force plays
Despite the lackluster offense, Iowa had a good season last year thanks in large part to its stellar defense. Downfield plays won't be easy to come by, and with Riley Moss covering Jaxon Janke, SDSU is going to have to rely on tight ends Tucker Kraft and Zach Heins, as well as Isaiah Davis out of the backfield to create some offense, even if all the plays are short yardage.
SDSU opens its home slate against the University of California, Davis, on Sept. 10. Iowa stays home to host the annual Cy-Hawk rivalry game against Iowa State, also on Sept. 10.