South Dakota State begins FCS playoff run against Delaware


Joclyn Haven

Quarterback Mark Gronowski throws a pass in a Missouri Valley Conference game against Illinois State Nov. 12 at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.

Skyler Jackson, Co-Sports Editor (He/Him)

The South Dakota State Jackrabbits begin their playoff run Saturday as they take on Delaware in the second round of the FCS Playoffs at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.

Following two consecutive bye weeks to get rested up and healthy, the No. 1 seeded Jackrabbits will host the Blue Hens for just the second time ever.

The first matchup came in the semifinals of the 2021 spring season playoffs. Delaware came into that game with a 7-0 record and the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) title. Despite their opponent heading into that game with confidence, the Jackrabbits dominated Delaware 33-3 to advance to the national title game.

Jacks coach John Stiegelmeier said he doesn’t look at the Delaware team the Jacks faced a couple of seasons ago and is instead looking ahead to Saturday’s matchup.

“Never do we sit down and dig out our folder and say, ‘what did we do last year?’ We start fresh,” Stiegelmeier said. “I think the similarity is that it’s the same opponent we had in the playoffs. Different round of the playoffs, but the same opponent, and we get to be at home, so that’s similar. So we’re looking forward to playing them.”

About Delaware

Following their loss in the FCS semifinals, the Blue Hens then struggled in the fall season with a 5-6 record that resulted in their coach Danny Rocco being fired. He was replaced by Ryan Carty, a former Delaware quarterback that was on its 2003 national championship team.

This year the Blue Hens bounced back. They started the season 5-0, including a win against an FBS opponent (Navy) in their season-opener, and ranked in the top 10 in the national rankings. Then they fell off a bit and limped into the playoffs losing four of its final six games to finish the regular season at 7-4.

But they might have gotten some of their momentum back after a dominating 56-17 performance against Saint Francis last week in the first round.

“We stuck together,” Carty said after the Saint Francis game. “I think the seniors and the leaders have done such a great job that they’re just going back to work, putting their head down and understanding that it’s not acceptable to lose football games in the way that we lost them, but it’s also things we could learn from.”

Offensively, Delaware is averaging 30 points per game and 426.8 yards per game. Quarterback Nolan Henderson ranks seventh in the FCS in passing yards with 3,200 this season. He has thrown 32 touchdowns, tied for fifth in the nation, with only nine interceptions and has a 64.5% completion rate.

Their running game has combined for 2,130 yards this season and is led by Kyron Cumby, who leads the team in attempts (91), yards (602), and touchdowns (4). Jourdan Townsend leads the Blue Hens in receiving yards (674), while Thyrick Pitts leads in touchdowns (10).

While the Blue Hens have been solid offensively, the defense has been one of the best in the country. They rank fourth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 16.2 points per game, and they rank third in the nation in total defense with 276.8 yards allowed per game.

“I see 11 guys that are very well-coached,” Stiegelmeier said about Delaware’s defense. “I see a D-line that plays with unbelievable leverage in terms of taking on blocks and I see a corps of linebackers that are physical sons of guns that’ll hit you and get off blocks. It’s a unique defense but well-coached and they play with great technique.”

Linebacker Johnny Buchanan leads the FCS in total tackles with 136. Artis Hemmingway leads the Blue Hens in tackles for loss with 8.5. Preseason all-American Kendrick Whitehead leads the team in interceptions with two this season, along with teammate Drew Nickles.

About South Dakota State

SDSU is back in the playoffs for the 11th time in a row and 13th time overall. They compiled a 10-1 overall record, the first time they ever win 10 games in a season, and an 8-0 mark in the Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC).

The Jacks claimed the outright MVFC title for the first time in program history, and it was the first time the Jacks went undefeated in conference play.

And following their win against North Dakota State back in October, the Jackrabbits have been the No. 1 team in the nation for six consecutive weeks, the first time SDSU had ever been ranked in the top spot.

Following a dominant regular season, the Jacks received the No. 1 overall seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs as they attempt to make a run at the program’s first national title.

And the Jacks will be the healthiest they’ve been all season, thanks to a schedule that gave the Jacks their bye week at the end of the regular season, plus the first-round bye that goes to the top eight seeds in the playoffs.

The only Jackrabbit player that remains questionable for Saturday is all-American linebacker Adam Bock, who has been out with an injury he suffered Oct. 22 at UND.

“I’d say it’s a really great blessing to be able to have those two breaks and to have the training staff that we have that invests in our guys,” Stiegelmeier said. “Didn’t believe in it at the start, but I’m totally sold on it right now.”

The Jackrabbit offense is averaging 31.4 points per game and has gained 367.5 yards of total offense per game this season. Quarterback Mark Gronowski has completed 65% of his passes for 2,247 yards, 18 touchdowns and five interceptions.

SDSU’s rushing attack features a one-two punch of Isaiah Davis and Amar Johnson. Davis leads the team in rushing with 932 yards and 10 touchdowns on 177 carries. Johnson has 494 yards and four touchdowns on 97 attempts. Another key component of the Jackrabbit rushing attack has been Gronowski, who has eight rushing touchdowns this season.

The Janke twins have led the Jacks in receiving this season. Jaxon is the team’s leader in both receptions (46) and yards (603) while both he and Jadon lead the team in touchdowns (5). The Jacks also have one of the top tight-end tandems in the country. Zach Heins has four touchdowns this season, while Tucker Kraft has two in five games after returning from injury.

Defensively the Jackrabbits have been dominant. They are ranked third in the FCS in scoring defense, allowing only 15.5 points per game, and are ranked second in scoring defense with only 255 yards allowed per game.

“I think (home-field advantage) is very important for a lot of reasons,” Stiegelmeier said. “But the bottom line is we have to win a football game before anything goes through Brookings, so that’s our goal. Today 1-0 and then see what happens.”

Game Info

Matchup: Delaware (8-4) at #1 South Dakota State (10-1)

When: Dec. 3 at 2 p.m.

Where: Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium, Brookings, SD


Radio: Jackrabbit Sports Network / KSDJ