Jacks, Panthers meet in top-10 clash on Senior Day

Landon Dierks, Sports Editor

With the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs just two weekends away, there’s plenty to play for in Saturday’s top-10 Missouri Valley Football Conference matchup.

There would have been considerable postseason implications for both programs regardless of last weekend’s outcome, but the stakes escalated when then-No. 4 SDSU stumbled against then-No. 11 Illinois State Nov. 9 at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.

Had the Jackrabbits been able to hold onto an 18-10 second-half lead against the Redbirds, a win against UNI may have given the Jacks a strong enough resume to earn a top-four seed, first-round bye and home-field advantage through the national quarterfinals.

However, that’s not the case, and now SDSU’s road to the FCS National Championship got a whole lot tougher.

With a win over No. 5 Northern Iowa (7-3, 5-1 MVFC), the No. 9 Jackrabbits (7-3, 4-2 MVFC) will remain in contention for a top-eight national seed and first-round bye, but a loss likely means SDSU will be playing on Thanksgiving weekend regardless of the season finale’s result.

Now more than ever, the Jacks have to stay true to their program mission of going 1-0 each week.

“Our terminology is, ‘Play in the present,’” said SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier in his Nov. 11 update with GoJacks.com. “You do that on the football field — good or bad — you need to do it in life and you need to do it weekly over the course of a football season, and our guys will do that.”

The Jacks will have to make the most of the opportunity against a Panther team hoping to make its case for a top-four seed.

At its core, UNI’s season has many similarities to that of SDSU. Each team has losses on the road against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent (the Panthers opened with a 3-point loss to a nationally ranked Iowa State team in triple-overtime), to North Dakota State and to another top-10 ranked FCS opponent (UNI fell at now-No. 3 Weber State in late September).

But the two teams are currently on vastly different trajectories.

Since its blowout loss to NDSU Oct. 12, the Panthers have strung together four consecutive wins, headlined by a 27-10 road win against the same Illinois State team that beat SDSU in Brookings just days ago.

Meanwhile, the Jacks have been trending down. SDSU has two losses in its last three games and needs a win to prevent back-to-back losses for the first time in five years. It’s no coincidence that the sudden regression coincided with an injury to quarterback J’Bore Gibbs during the first quarter of Oct. 26’s loss to NDSU.

Keaton Heide, who’s started the past two games in Gibbs’ relief, has performed admirably — he even drew praise from his head coach for his effort in staying upright and finding room in the pocket against a Redbird team that ranks in the top-five nationally in rushing the passer.

The true freshman was sacked just three times despite the Redbirds blitzing at an elevated rate in an attempt to fluster the young signal-caller. However, turnovers remain an issue for Heide.

A late interception in the NDSU game set up the Bison’s game-winning drive, and an interception and lost fumble led to 11 fourth quarter points for the Redbirds this past Saturday.

SDSU’s defense has proven numerous times this season it can stop even the best of opponents with regularity, but not turning the ball over will be imperative in the Jacks’ attempt to knock off UNI and a similarly-stingy Panther defense.

“They are very well coached, very aggressive, very physical,” Stiegelmeier said. “It’s a team you don’t want to get off schedule and be in third-and-long against because they’ll get after you. … We’re going to have to play our best football and we have to play error-free football and we’ll have a chance to win — no doubt.”

Defensively, the Panthers will likely employ a blitz-heavy strategy similar to the one Illinois State used to rush Heide’s decision making — and they have just the man to do it.

Elerson G. Smith, a 6-foot-7 defensive lineman, leads the MVFC with 12 sacks this season (4.5 in the three games he’s played during the Panthers’ current win streak) and has forced four fumbles.

“They have a way to get him one-on-one by pressing their linebackers. We’ll have to have an answer for him, but we’ve done pretty well against guys like that at having solutions,” Stiegelmeier said. 

Offensively, UNI has two running backs nearing the 400-yard threshold for the season, but has had much more success moving the ball through the air thanks to redshirt freshman quarterback Will McElvain. The 5-foot-11 McElvain may not have the height of a typical quarterback, but it doesn’t impact his playmaking ability.

In just his first season starting in the MVFC, McElvain ranks second in passing yards (2,115) and third in passing touchdowns (18), while throwing just three interceptions — the second-fewest by a quarterback who’s started at least seven games.

McElvain and company will look to pick apart an SDSU defense that’s tied for the conference lead in interceptions and anchored by senior linebacker Christian Rozeboom, who became the program’s all-time leading tackler last weekend.

Saturday is Senior Day — the last guaranteed game Rozeboom and his fellow seniors will play in front of Jackrabbit Nation at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.

“These guys have accomplished a lot and still have very high expectations,” Stiegelmeier said. “… I know this: they made a difference here at South Dakota State.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. Nov. 16, at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium. Radio coverage will be provided by the Jackrabbits Sports Network. Additional live coverage will be available on Twitter through @CollegianSports.