Springing Forward: With spring season over, Jacks look ahead to summer

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

After 15 practices over the last month, South Dakota State football culminated its spring season Saturday with its annual Spring Game. 

Jackrabbit fans packed the Sanford Jackrabbit Athletic Complex to watch the defending national champions compete in the intrasquad scrimmage under first year head coach Jimmy Rogers, as the offense walked away with a 23-18 win. 

And this year’s game came with a few changes. While previous spring games gave defensive points for things like sacks and turnovers, this one was scored more traditionally with four timed quarters. The defense started with an 18-point lead, which was based on the scoring difference between the two units last season. The offense scored 34.2 points per game while the defense allowed 15.8. 

For Rogers, the spring season and the Spring Game were important for the coach staff to evaluate younger up-and-coming players and for the players to get some reps. 

“I think it’s important and valued every time you get a shot to see game reps,” Rogers said. “We had an opportunity here with the crowd, and some of the younger guys do clam up a little bit playing in front of people when they haven’t taken a ton of reps. So, the exposure that the fans give us is really good as far as creating an atmosphere for the players and that’s how we evaluate it.” 

The game started with a trick play when Isaiah Davis threw a halfback pass to receiver Jaxon Janke for a 40-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage. Two plays later, redshirt freshman running back Derrick Johnson scored a 23-yard touchdown. 

After the quick start from the offense, the defense clamped down for the rest of the first half. Redshirt cornerback Jalen B. Lee stood out in that first half, posting three sacks and the first of two interceptions. 

In the second half, the offense started to come alive. With many of the starters either not suited up or playing only a couple of drives, backups were given opportunities to impress. In the offense’s third possession of the second half, quarterback Chase Mason connected with Grahm Goering for a 65-yard touchdown. 

Then, a 43-yard field goal by Hunter Dustman to draw the offense within a point. They struck again on the next drive, when running back Angel Johnson broke past the secondary for a 65-yard touchdown that proved to be the game-winning score.

“Early on in the game with a lot of my mid-zone runs, I was trying to force it outside and get around the edge,” Johnson said. “I just had to be more patient. So, I got the handoff, seeing the flow of the defense, I was just patient with it, cut back, ran up the middle and did the rest.” 

Johnson carried the ball 11 times and finished with 81 yards. Mason completed 3-of-5 passes for 79 yards and tight end Mike Morgan caught four balls for 29 yards. On the defense, safeties Cale Reeder and Max Polischuk and defensive ends Blake Peterson and Quinton Hicks all finished with three tackles. 

The Spring Game wraps up Rogers’ first spring season as a head coach. He said that while many of the backups have performed well throughout the spring, there’s still work to be done. 

“Some of the backups, they need to take a step, they do,” Rogers said. “But overall, spring in general was good. You’ve just got to stay healthy going into the summer and look forward to getting better.” 

Since the former Jackrabbit defensive coordinator replaced longtime coach John Stiegelmeier in January, the team knew they were going to adjust to a new voice and a new style. But to players and coaches, the transition to Rogers has been a smooth one. 

“Coach Rogers is doing an awesome job leading the whole squad,” offensive coordinator Zach Lujan said. “Obviously, he knows all the guys and he’s been very intentional about building relationships. And that’s one of the things I appreciate most about him.” 

Now, the Jackrabbits look ahead to summer practices. Despite losing key players from last year’s championship team like tight end Tucker Kraft, defensive end Reece Winkelman and defensive tackle Caleb Sanders, they are still returning 18 of 22 starters and have an impressive freshman class coming in. 

The team will continue adjusting to how things will be under Rogers as they begin their title defense in the fall. 

“Coach (Stiegelmeier) will say it takes three years to get on the same page. We don’t have three years, we have right now,” Rogers said. “So, we need to get on the same page, and we did a good job of that. We brought in really good coaches that adopted quick and we’ll make a run at (a national championship).” 

The Jackrabbits will play their season-opener at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium Thursday, Aug. 31 before an FCS semifinal rematch with Montana State Sept. 9. The non-conference season will end Sept. 16 against Drake at Target Field.