Jacks look for first road win in top 25 clash

Landon Dierks, Sports Editor

Nearly six weeks ago, South Dakota State came just short of upsetting Minnesota, but that remains the only road game the team has played.

That changes Saturday when the third-ranked Jackrabbits (4-1, 1-0) travel east to take on No. 19 Youngstown State (4-1, 0-1) in Missouri Valley Football Conference action.

In the four games between the late August clash with Minnesota and now, SDSU hasn’t truly been tested. After blasting three nonconference Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) opponents by a combined score of 119-20, the Jacks opened MVFC play Oct. 5 against Southern Illinois.

The Salukis challenged SDSU early, even leading 10-9 at halftime, but a combination of suffocating defense and a big day from sophomore Pierre Strong Jr. dashed any chance of a comeback. SIU managed only 67 yards and four first downs in the second half as SDSU 28-10.

Saturday’s opposition, though, should be the Jacks’ stiffest FCS competition to date.

YSU also cruised through its nonconference schedule, defeating each opponent by at least 20 points, but faltered last weekend in a 21-14 loss at No. 10 Northern Iowa.

If recent history is any indication of how to handle the Penguins, Strong and his backfield mates will have to have another good outing.

In the past six meetings between SDSU and YSU, the Jacks hold a 4-2 edge, but the winning team in each of those meetings has been the team that won the battle on the ground. This includes a meeting on Hobo Day one year ago, when SDSU ran for 253 yards and four touchdowns en route to a 36-7 win.

It’s no secret both teams want to run the football.

Through five games, both teams have churned out more than 1,200 yards on the ground. For SDSU, the charge is led by sophomore Pierre Strong Jr. with 551 yards. The Penguins, on the other hand, rely on several backs to get the job done. Four YSU runners have at least 200 yards and three touchdowns rushing.

“It’s simple … technique-based and ability-based,” SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said of the YSU blocking and running scheme. “We get 11 guys on defense. They get 11 on offense and they’re saying, ‘our running back is going to beat your guy for at least four yards on these plays,’ and they do a pretty good job of it.”

But Stiegelmeier doesn’t expect Saturday’s contest to simply come down to the running game.

“(YSU) Coach (Bo) Pelini has done a great job out there,” Stiegelmeier said in a weekly update with GoJacks.com. “They will play great defense. They’re very, very athletic. All 11 guys are going to be able to run to the ball. They’re physical guys and understand their defense … We’re going to have to beat them physically because we’re not going to trick them at all.”

With both teams owning a 4-1 record, neither program is in a particularly rough spot this early in the season, but YSU sophomore defensive end Antoine Cook classifies the matchup as a “must-win” for the Penguin team, hoping to avoid an 0-2 start to MVFC play.

Pelini believes his team may have let a win slip away at UNI last week, but has no doubt his football team is capable of upsetting one of the top teams in the country.

“I don’t think our guys have any question they can hang with somebody,” Pelini said in a weekly press conference. “Heck, we’re a good football team.”

The key for the Jacks will be handling the road environment against a traditionally strong conference foe; the Penguins are 19-4 at Stambaugh Stadium since the beginning of 2016.

“We have to get (the team) into the travel mode,” Stiegelmeier said. “We’ve been blessed to be at home, so we’ll go out there with that in mind and try to play our best football.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 5 p.m. at Stambaugh Stadium in Youngstown, Ohio. Television coverage can be found on KELOLAND’s MyUTV and radio coverage will be provided by the Jackrabbits Sports Network.