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South Dakota State heads west to Sacramento State for FCS playoffs second round

Game pairs top-20 defenses and strong offenses against each other on Saturday night

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South Dakota State's Tucker Kraft carries the ball during the first half of the Jackrabbits' game with Southern Illinois on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021 at Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)

Hitting the road, South Dakota State takes its FCS playoff hopes out west this weekend, visiting No. 4-seeded Sacramento State for a second-round contest against an upstart program.

The Jackrabbits (9-3) are a trendy selection to pull the upset nationally, given they have the playoff pedigree of 10 straight playoff appearances and a 2020 national title game appearance, and are facing a relative newcomer to the FCS playoff field, with SDSU favored by a touchdown or more in some places. Kickoff is planned for 8 p.m. Central Saturday at Hornet Stadium.

Sacramento State, which is making just its second FCS playoff appearance all-time, represents a sound football program, SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said, one that plays multiple quarterbacks, boasts a balanced running game and a tough defense.

The Hornets, who have won their last eight games, won the Big Sky Conference with an undefeated 8-0 record, including a road win at then-No. 5 Montana 28-21 but did not play fellow league playoff qualifiers Eastern Washington and Montana State.

Sacramento State’s only losses came to Northern Iowa (34-16) and Cal (42-30) in September. (UNI also beat SDSU 27-16 on Oct. 23.) Since Oct. 9, the Hornets have trailed for only 14 seconds in the last seven games.

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“The athletes they have, the schemes they run, it’s an impressive football program,” he said. “To have that success that early in a really good league speaks for itself.”

Sacramento State boasts a tough defense, allowing 18.6 points per game, which is the best scoring average in the team’s nearly 30 years playing Division I football. It did not allow more than 24 points in any Big Sky Conference game — a league known for having high-powered offenses — this year. SDSU's defense checks in at 18.8 points allowed per game, setting up a battle of top-20 scoring defenses.

SDSU enters the game off a 56-24 win over UC Davis last weekend, a team that Sacramento State beat two weeks ago in the regular-season finale 27-7. Stiegelmeier said that the common opponent does more to help the Hornets than it does for the Jackrabbits.

“It helps them a ton,” Stiegelmeier said. “They knew (UC) Davis already, so it’s truly an advantage to Sac State. … They’ve had two weeks to prepare.”

But in last week’s win over the Aggies, SDSU looked like it was back in the form that it opened the season by winning its first four games, rushing with a vengeance and a school playoff record 446 yards in the blowout win. Isaiah Davis ran for 217 yards on 15 carries and now has 663 yards on 58 carries in the first five playoff games of his career, good for more than 11 yards per carry. Paired with Pierre Strong Jr.’s continued rushing success (1,502 yards and 16 touchdowns), SDSU’s rushing attack has rarely looked better this season.

Strong leads the team in big plays of 20 yards or more with 20, including six touchdowns. The team had 10 of those plays in the win over UC Davis. As a team, SDSU is averaging 7.1 yards per play.

Stiegelmeier said he has told his team to control its preparation in the road-game environment and try to make the visiting team’s stadium their own on gameday.

“We’re confident wherever we’re at,” he said. “There’s 21 guys that are playing for one more week. We have 21 seniors that have a whole different mentality than the rest of the 80-some guys because it’s one or done and it’s done, football is over.”

Related Topics: FOOTBALL
Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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