No. 4 Jacks host No. 12 Redbirds

Jakob King, Sports Reporter

After getting back in the win column on the road last weekend, No. 4 South Dakota State will look to build on that performance when it hosts No. 12 Illinois State on Saturday at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.

The Jackrabbits are coming off a 35-14 win over Missouri State while Illinois State lost 27-10 to Northern Iowa last week.

The series between the Jackrabbits and the Redbirds has been close in recent years. SDSU has won three of the last five matchups, including a 38-28 win last season.

In that game, SDSU running back Pierre Strong Jr. and ISU running back James Robinson combined for just 30 yards rushing.

That number will likely be much larger this time around.

Both offenses feature heavy doses of their star rushers. Strong (7.6 yards per rush, 975 yards, seven touchdowns) and Robinson (5.1 yards per rush, 963 yards, 14 touchdowns) are the two leading rushers in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

Robinson running the ball is the most important part of the Redbird offense. Quarterback Brady Davis has struggled this season, completing only 50% of his passes for 1,340 yards with six touchdowns and eight interceptions — this is after a 2018 season in which he finished second in MVFC Newcomer of the Year voting.

Another thing that the Redbirds have excelled at this year is getting after the quarterback.

Romeo McKnight leads the team with eight sacks and is one of 14 Redbirds to sack the opposing quarterback. ISU is first in the conference and fourth in the nation with 33 team sacks.

“When they get you into long-yardage situations, they’re very good, very elaborate,” SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier said. “They’re very good at pass rushing — the system is very hard to figure out.”

On the other side of the ball, the Redbirds have one of the best offensive lines in the conference, allowing just 14 sacks and Robinson to run wild on opposing defenses.

At the center of the Redbird operation is head coach Brock Spack.

Prior to Spack taking over in 2009, the Redbirds hadn’t won a conference championship since 1999. Now, more than a decade into his stay in Normal, ISU has won two MVFC championships and made the playoffs four times, advancing as far as the Football Championship Subdivision National Championship game in 2014.

Spack has an 80-48 record in ten-plus seasons as the ISU head coach.

Despite both teams sitting in the top 12 of the FCS rankings, Saturday’s game comes at a critical time in the season for both teams.

Illinois State lost its third game of the season last week, and with Saturday’s trip to Brookings and a season finale at Youngstown State still on the schedule, the Redbirds are in danger of missing the playoffs for the third straight season.

For the Jackrabbits, a top-eight playoff seed and first-round bye are still in play. However, a loss would likely mean SDSU would have to travel away from Brookings should it advance to the quarterfinal round and beyond.

“I expect a playoff mindset for our team,” Stiegelmeier said. “(Illinois State) expects to be in the playoffs. They finished second in the nation a couple years ago — that’s the kind of program they have. We’re trying to build a resume for our seed. If we’re able to win this weekend against a ranked team, that bodes really well to say that we’re one of the top-eight teams in America.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. Nov. 9 at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium. Television coverage can be found on MidcoSN and radio coverage will be provided by the Jackrabbits Sports Network. Additional live coverage will be available on Twitter through @CollegianSports.