Defense carries Jacks in home opener



South Dakota State redshirt freshman and Madison, South Dakota, native Jaxon Janke (10, with football) runs through would-be tacklers with the help of several escorts, including twin brother Jadon (9), on a 77-yard punt return touchdown Sept. 7 against Long Island. After appearing in just seven combined games in 2018, Jadon and Jaxon, who play wide receiver, are seeing regular playing time in 2019.

Landon Dierks and Jakob King

With starting quarterback J’Bore Gibbs out with a hand injury, South Dakota State University needed its defense to step up in the teams’ home opener — and it did.

Led by eight tackles and an interception by senior linebacker Christian Rozeboom, the Jackrabbit defense held Long Island University to just 123 yards of total offense, forcing two LIU turnovers in a 38-3 win Saturday night at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.

SDSU’s effort on defense was especially impressive to LIU head coach Bryan Collins, whose team made it Division I debut Saturday night.

“I’ve never seen a defense that fast,” Collins said. “They just have fast players on every level. They’re very sound on defense and they have exceptional speed. A hole would open up and they’d close it real fast. We didn’t break anything on them.” 

Collins isn’t the only coach who was impressed, though. SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier has been pleased with his defense’s performance through two contests.

“I’m very happy,” Stiegelmeier said. “We’re getting pressure on the quarterback, we’re stopping the run — 123 yards for the game, I think that’s pretty good.” 

With the defense stopping LIU (0-1) at nearly every turn and Gibbs’ sidelined, SDSU (1-1) relied heavily on the running game.

Sophomore running back Pierre Strong Jr. led the charge for the Jacks’ with 12 carries for 55 yards and a touchdown. The Jacks’ piled up 186 of their 324 yards on the ground. 

While junior Kanin Nelson got the start and played most of the game in place of Gibbs, SDSU also used freshman Keaton Heide. With the ground game carrying most of the load, Nelson and Heide managed the game through the air, combining to go 8-for-10 for 138 yards with one touchdown.

But it was a miscue by the second-string quarterback that started a sloppy first half by both teams.

After an LIU three-and-out, Nelson guided the Jacks opening possession deep into Shark territory. However, the junior was stripped of the ball at the 3-yard line and the Sharks recovered, halting the SDSU advance.

“It’s just one of those things where you have to be better with ball security,” Nelson said. “That’s just one mistake that you have to move on from and improve.” 

Ball security, or lack thereof, marred the opening 30 minutes. While each team only lost one fumble, the teams combined to put the ball on the ground five times.

On their next offensive possession, the Jacks pulled ahead when Nelson scored on a two-yard quarterback keeper.

LIU’s offense struggled to move the ball throughout the evening. Late in the first quarter, LIU quarterback Clay Beathard, brother of San Francisco 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard, opted to punt on third-and-13 from his own just to flip field position.

The strategic move worked, as the Sharks’ defense forced a three-and-out. After a short punt, LIU was set up with its best field position of the first half at the SDSU 45-yard line.

The Sharks took advantage, driving as far as the 6-yard line, but the drive stalled, forcing the visitors to settle for a 27-yard field goal.

On LIU’s next possession, the SDSU defense forced another punt, leading to the most explosive play of the game.

Punt returner Jaxon Janke watched the punt bounce three times before making the choice to pick it up at his own 23-yard line surrounded by four members of the Shark punt coverage unit. From there, he raced down the visitor’s sideline en route to a 77-yard touchdown.

“A lot of people were screaming at me to get away from the ball, but I only saw one guy in front of me and I thought he wasn’t really paying attention to me,” Janke explained. “So in my mind, the first thing I thought was to pick it up and run.” 

The young receiver’s big play injected life into the Jacks, who had been struggling to find much success on offense to that point.

“It was a big play by a big player, just to get the momentum going,” Rozeboom said. “It was a kind of a weird atmosphere at the time, and that really brought the crowd back in the game.”

Shortly thereafter, freshman defensive end Quinton Hicks forced and recovered a fumble on a sack of Beathard, giving the Jacks the ball at the LIU 31-yard line. Six plays later, Strong gave SDSU a 21-3 advantage heading into the locker room.

Things didn’t get better after the break for the Sharks, as the Jacks tacked on two more touchdowns in the third quarter. The pair of endzone visits came just 19 seconds apart after a Beathard interception on the first play following an SDSU scoring drive set the Jacks up in Shark territory.

A 22-yard Chase Vinatieri field goal midway through the fourth quarter capped the scoring in a game SDSU won comfortably without the services of some key players. This included star receiver Cade Johnson, who exited the game with an unknown injury after returning the second-half kickoff.

“It’s tremendous to get a win at home,” Stiegelmeier said. “Playing with a number of guys that are major contributors who couldn’t play or were injured — I just feel really good about the win.”

SDSU is back in action at 1 p.m. Sept. 14 when Drake University visits Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.