Jacks finish conference 10-1, have two weeks off before playoffs

Marshall Minihan, Sports Reporter

The South Dakota State football team made history at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium Saturday following its 31-7 win over Illinois State. Here’s a look at a series of firsts that were accomplished after Saturday’s win:

The Jacks won the outright Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC) title for the first time

SDSU’s won 10 games in the regular season for the first time

It was the first time that SDSU has gone undefeated in conference play and in the FCS

Now, the No. 1-ranked Jackrabbits (10-1, 8-0 MVFC) head into their first of two consecutive bye weeks as they look ahead to the FCS playoffs and the road to the team’s first-ever national championship.

The Jackrabbits have never had their bye week on the final week of the regular season. But coach John Stiegelmeier said the two bye weeks could not have come at a better time, even if he wasn’t as optimistic about it at the beginning of the season.

“I was somewhat negative about having the bye week here because we’ve never had it,” Stiegelmeier said. “I wasn’t excited about it, now I’m thrilled about it based on the grind of the season and the injury situation we’re in. I flipped and I think it’s a good time to have it.”

The Jackrabbits have dealt with injuries all season, so two-straight bye weeks could work in SDSU’s favor. Many of SDSU’s starters have dealt with an injury this season, with some of them having to miss multiple games because of it.

All-American linebacker Adam Bock suffered a leg injury three weeks ago at North Dakota, and is hoping to return for the playoffs. Tight end Tucker Kraft, who went down in week one against Iowa, missed the next six games before returning a few weeks ago. Two weeks off will give them and the rest of the team time to get healthy in time for their playoff run.

“The time off is coming at the right time because of our injuries and the wear and tear of the season mentally and physically,” Stigelmeier said. “The Lord has blessed the Jackrabbits this year.”

With one week to go in the FCS regular season, the Jackrabbits are one of a few teams in the running for the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

That advantage seemed to help the Jackrabbits in their run to the championship game in the spring 2021 season.

But one team that could get the No. 1 seed is Sacramento State, who is 10-0 this season and ranked second in the national rankings. Another team to consider is Montana State. They are 9-1 this season and if they beat rival Montana Saturday, that could be enough to give them home-field advantage.

“I think in the end it doesn’t matter,” Stiegelmeier said. “Being the one seed has got some bragging rights with it and who knows how they seed the other teams and who they put in your bracket.”

And the Jackrabbits should be happy with the way they ended the regular season following Saturday’s win over Illinois State.

At the end of the first quarter, the Redbirds led the No. 1 ranked Jacks 7-0, and the 20-degree football game looked like it could be a close one.

Illinois State’s special teams put the first points on the board in the first quarter after a blocked punt was recovered in the endzone by Sy Dabney.

Then came 31 unanswered points by the Jackrabbit offense.

Kicker Hunter Dustman, who kicked the winning field goal against UNI a week prior, put up a 22-yard field goal for the Jacks in the second quarter.

Then, to take the lead, quarterback Mark Gronowski ran for a six-yard touchdown. Gronowski threw for 283 yards, one touchdown and an interception for the game. The Illinois native’s longest pass on the day came from a 51-yard deep ball to Jadon Janke. Janke went for his second 100-yard game of the season with 129 yards on just five receptions.

“I think Mark played like Mark,” Stiegelmeier said. “Mark is a good football player, and he can impact the game in a big way.”

Dustman would hit another field goal, this time from 45-yards away to put the Jacks ahead 13-7 at halftime.

In the second half, the Jacks marched down the field 62 yards in just four plays. Running back Isaiah Davis scored on an eight-yard run and the Jacks added a two-point conversion to go up 21-7. Davis rushed for 50 yards on 16 carries while backup Amar Johnson added 39 yards on eight carries.

SDSU’s next touchdown of the game came from a seven-yard pass from Gronowski to tight end Zach Heins. He had two receptions for ten yards in the game. Kraft went for 44 yards with receptions in the game as well. Wide receiver Jaxon Janke caught four passes for 67 yards.

Dustman would put the final points on the board for the second week in a row with a 35-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to extend the Jacks lead to 24 points.

SDSU’s defense showed out in the game by holding the Redbird offense to only 100 total yards and zero scores. Leading the team was Jason Freeman, who racked up seven total tackles as well as one sack. Saiveon Williamson had four tackles in the game as well.

“There is always room for improvement,” Freeman said. “But zero points on our end is a win for us.”

The Jackrabbits have now gotten an interception in every game of the season, thanks to a tipped interception caught by cornerback Dyshawn Gales.

For Illinois State, Tommy Rittenhouse threw 20 passes on the day, completing just nine of them along with one interception. The Redbirds only had one receiver over ten yards, which was Daniel Sobkowicz, who had four catches for 32 yards. Rittenhouse led the team in rushing yards, putting up 18 yards on nine runs while tailback Wenkers Wright ran for 16 yards on nine carries.

Jeff Bowens and Zeke Vandenburgh led the Illinois State defense with 10 tackles each with Dillion Gearhart following closely with nine himself. Vandenburgh had the sole interception for the Redbirds, coming off a throwaway pass by Gronowski.

“I’m proud of our program and it was a good win against Illinois State,” Stiegelmeier said. “I continue to be really excited about the way our defense plays. We need to eliminate mistakes in special teams and offense and then we’ll be hitting on all cylinders.”