Jackrabbits return to FCS playoffs, play Northern Arizona Saturday
By Marcus Traxler SDSU Collegian For the second straight year, South Dakota State Univerity's football team is in the playoffs. Winners in their last four games, the Jackrabbits officially received word Sunday morning that they would be in the 24...
By Marcus Traxler
For the second straight year, South Dakota State Univerity’s football team is in the playoffs.
Winners in their last four games, the Jackrabbits officially received word Sunday morning that they would be in the 24-team field, receiving one of the 13 at-large bids in the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs. SDSU hits the road in the first round with a trip to Flagstaff, Ariz., to battle Northern Arizona University in a 7 p.m. Central time Saturday game.
The game will be shown online at ESPN3.com. The winner of the SDSU/Northern Arizona tilt will travel to Cheney, Wash., in the second round for a game against No. 3 Eastern Washington on Dec. 7. The 10-2 Eagles won the automatic bid in the Big Sky Conference, which includes Northern Arizona.
SDSU was on the bubble heading into the final regular season game of the year Saturday against Youngstown State, but the Jackrabbits were not fazed, winning in dominant fashion, 42-13. Leading up to their win over the Penguins, SDSU defeated Northern Iowa, Indiana State and South Dakota to set up the shot for the playoffs.
“Obviously, we’re excited to get in based on how we had to play ourselves in. I’m proud of our guys,” SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier said. “I think there’s a lot of Big Sky versus the Missouri Valley talk about who’s the better league. Well, let’s go down there and see how we compare to them.”
The Jackrabbits (8-4) were one of two teams in the conference to make the playoffs, joining No. 1 North Dakota State University (11-0) in the field. It extends the season for the Jacks’ 17 seniors, including cornerback Winston Wright.
“It’s another promised week for my teammates and my coaches,” Wright said. “There’s a lot of time invested here and it’s just another week to be around my teammates. It’s special.”
The Lumberjacks have won their last six straight games and are 5-0 at home this season inside the Walkup Skydome, where NAU plays its home games. NAU averaged 24.6 points per game during the regular season and finished with only two losses - Arizona and Montana State.
Senior running back Zach Bauman leads the Lumberjacks with 1,355 yards and eight touchdowns rushing.
“I understand they’re a running team like we are and they’re a four-man front team like we are, so I think we’re going to be able to make an easy transition into watching their film,” Stiegelmeier said. “I know they’re a physical team and there’s some concern about the altitude down there in Flagstaff, but we just need to worry about going down there and playing our best football.”
Quarterback Austin Sumner said there was some anxiety prior to the bracket being announced but the team is glad to be in the playoffs again. It’s the second straight year for SDSU in the playoffs and the third time in five years. The Jacks have only made the football playoffs four times in school history and three of those have come at the Division I level.
“It’s special to be a part of this program’s history,” Sumner said. “Any time you can represent the school and the conference in the playoffs, it’s important.”
Sumner and running back Zach Zenner lead the Jacks offensively. Sumner has thrown for 2,628 yards, seven interceptions and 18 touchdowns on 210-of-353 passing. Zenner has 300 carries for 1,695 yards and 20 touchdowns this season.
Ultimately, the Valley will be disappointed with only qualifying two teams into the playoffs, when three other bubble teams all believed they should have had their names called. Youngstown State (8-4), Northern Iowa (7-5) and Southern Illinois (7-5) all thought they should have had a case for the playoffs.
“It’s a great example of a selection that should be objective that ends up being subjective,” Stiegelmeier said. “I don’t mean that subjectively, holy nutmeg, we are labeled the best league in America (according to the Gridiron Power Index), and we get two teams in. Win at the end, lose at the end, it should come down to who you’re playing and we’re playing great teams. I feel bad for a lot of teams in our league.”