BROOKINGS -- South Dakota State’s 13-10 loss to Northern Iowa on Saturday was a microcosm and a logical end to a season riddled with injuries and unmet expectations.
Following the home loss in the second round of the FCS playoffs -- to a team the Jackrabbits beat 38-7 less than a month prior -- there was no mincing of words or excuses made for not attaining the standard set for the program.
When the expectation is a national championship berth, the season is likely to end in disappointment. But for SDSU, which had a top-five ranking to start the season and welcomed ESPN’s College GameDay paying a visit for the Dakota Marker game and came off back-to-back trips to the semifinals, ending the season in Frisco, Texas was the next step.
“Our expectations and goals are much higher than this,” SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier said after the game. “We lost five games by a total of 29 points. ... It’s not a successful season. We had very high goals and lofty goals, and when it comes down to the playoffs and you’re looking 15 seniors in the eye, we fell short.”
Sure, injuries were a big reason for the 8-5 finish. Losing Pierre Strong and starting center Wes Genant for a large portion of the year hurt.
Perhaps the most significant blow came when J’Bore Gibbs -- the heir to Taryn Christion -- was lost for the year with a knee injury during the North Dakota State game after missing nearly a month after hurting his hand against Minnesota in the season opener.
True freshman quarterback Keaton Heide had flashes of success, but he and the offense sputtered down the stretch, largely due to ball security.
The Jacks lost four fumbles in a loss to South Dakota, which could have cost them a home game and a first-round bye. Even with a bit of luck -- perhaps based on the reputation built in recent years -- SDSU frittered away a 10-point against UNI, losing three turnovers in the second quarter.
“To me, the only way this season was going to be a success is if it ended in Frisco with a championship,” said SDSU senior defensive end Ryan Earith, who had 2.5 sacks against UNI. “There are a lot of positives that we can build on, so I just look forward to seeing what they can do.”
Gibbs is expected to return next season, but Stiegelmeier stated after the season-ending loss that Heide would have an opportunity to compete for the starting quarterback job in the spring.
They had similar statistics, with Gibbs -- a redshirt freshman -- throwing for 1,058 yards, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions, while Heide tossed 1,072 yards, seven touchdowns and three picks.
Although Gibbs lost two of his six starts, one was to 10-2 Minnesota and the other was an unfinished game against NDSU. In his other four starts, the Jacks were 4-0 and averaged 37.8 points per game.
With Gibbs out, the team went 2-3 with Heide and the offensive output dipped to 24.4 points per game. Still, Stiegelmeier refused to openly admit to the Gibbs’ injury being a turning point in the season.
“Keaton Heide is a really good football player, I think Kanin Nelson is a really good football player,” Stiegelmeier said, referencing the Mitchell native. “If I say that, I start looking at guys differently, believing in them less and I coach them differently. I’m a bull-headed German that says I’m never going to do that.”