Jacks host Thunderbirds in Saturday’s Beef Bowl

Jakob King, Sports Reporter

In its final tune-up before conference play, No. 3 South Dakota State will host Southern Utah in the 53rd annual Beef Bowl this Saturday.

The Jackrabbits’ (2-1) last two meetings with the Thunderbirds (1-2) came in 2014 and 2015. SDSU came out on top in both games, winning 26-6 in 2014 and 55-10 the following year.

Saturday’s Beef Bowl will be the third of four consecutive home games for the Jacks. Despite winning both games by a combined score of 76-13, head coach John Stiegelmeier and his staff aren’t looking at the scores, but rather focusing on ways to improve.

“We talk about it all the time,” Stiegelmeier said. “The measuring stick isn’t the score as much as how close did they get to playing the perfect game as an individual.” 

The two areas where the Jacks have shown the most strength so far this season are the running game and defense.

SDSU’s backfield ran wild in last week’s win over Drake, compiling 369 yards and three touchdowns. After that performance, the Jacks earned the 10th-best rushing offense in the Football Championship Subdivision, averaging 243 yards per game.

The Jacks also find themselves ranked in the top 10 of multiple defensive categories. Allowing just 13.7 points per game in their first three contests, the Jacks sit at eighth in the FCS in scoring defense. They’re ranked fifth in total defense, allowing just 240 yards per game, but Stiegelmeier says he still wants to see his team tackle better. He also gave a tip of the cap to his staff for the defense’s early success.

“I think our coordinators have done a great job of getting the guys to believe, getting them to play hard,” Stiegelmeier said. “And then teaching them a level of mastery so they’re not going out there and playing slow. They’re playing fast.”

SUU is just two years removed from a season in which it won the Big Sky Conference and earned a bye week in the first round of the FCS playoffs. Last year was a different story, as the Thunderbirds only managed one win in the 2018 season.

They will come into the game a week after winning their first game of the season, a 45-38 overtime triumph against Stephen F. Austin. SUU’s wide receiver Lance Lawson, who Stiegelmeier called “a really special player,” earned Big Sky Player of the Week honors from College Sports Madness after catching two touchdowns and throwing for another.

Demario Warren is in his fourth year as head coach for SUU, compiling a 17-20 record overall with a 13-11 mark in Big Sky Conference play. 

The Thunderbirds are led offensively by quarterback Chris Helbig, whose 375-yard effort, including three total touchdowns, lifted the team to a win last week. On the season, he’s completed 62.5% of his passes for 639 yards. Stiegelmeier said he wants his secondary to “read their keys and play with confidence” against what might be the best passing attack the Jacks have seen this year. 

Their ground game is powered by an offensive line captained by STATS Preseason All-American center Zach Larsen, while Lawson is their leading receiver with 28 catches for 251 yards and two scores.

The Thunderbirds run out a young group on defense, as they were tasked with replacing four of their five leading tacklers from last year. They’re allowing 432.3 yards and 42.6 points per game in their first three outings.

Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. Television coverage can be found on Midco Sports Network and radio coverage will be provided by the Jackrabbits Sports Network. Additional live coverage will be available on Twitter through @CollegianSports.