Third straight Hobo Day loss leaves fans wondering

AUSTIN HAMM Sports Editor

 Opportunity. It’s such a fleeting thing. One minute, you feel like you have a multitude of options and all the time in the world; the next, you can be left wondering what happened as your opponent celebrates.

Heading into the game against Northern Iowa on Hobo Day, the Jackrabbit football team had some chances that had opened up to them through happenings three hours north a week ago.

When USD went into Fargo and toppled NDSU with a field goal as time expired last week, that afforded much of the rest of the Missouri Valley both an opportunity and some knowledge.

The knowledge was that a good quarterback who was above average as both a passer and a runner could give the Bison defense enough issues to force them out of their more comfortable schemes and create some first downs. This knowledge bade well for the Jackrabbits should they have to face the Bison in the playoffs yet again, as Taryn Christion had won himself many fans with his legs in his first couple starts.

The opportunity that USD gave the entire conference was handing the Bison a conference loss. With that, Illinois State was the only remaining team without a MVFC loss. The Jacks have a date set with the Cardinals for Nov. 7 in the last game at Coughlin-Alumni Stadium. If NDSU had stumbled just once more (a legitimate possibility since the Coyotes knocked Bison quarterback Carson Wentz out for the season), the Jacks would have been in the driver’s seat for the conference championship. The chance to make a move against the Bison was there if the Rabbits could take it, and they should have been drooling at the prospects, because despite the recent run of success by NDSU, getting second in the conference should never be good enough.

But the dream of running the table died in a most painful way on Saturday after quite a few head-scratching decisions by the powers that be on the Jacks’ football team.

The first was Zach Lujan getting the start at quarterback. A two-game absence due to injury had let the true-freshman Christion come in and play commendably in a pair of wins over ranked opponents, but Head Coach John Stiegelmeier had repeatedly stated that he did not believe in a player losing his starting spot due to injury, so most assumed that when Lujan was healthy, he would get the chance to toss the rutabaga for the Jacks. A story had surfaced a few days before Hobo Day that there was a chance the Jacks ran with a two-quarterback system, but that seemed a dubious proposition with questions on Lujan’s health still lingering. But the Alaskan native trotted out to lead the offense and promptly returned to the bench after going 1-for-5 for eight yards in the first two series. It is still a little fuzzy whether the move was precipitated by Lujan’s health showing it was still a factor or just from general ineffectiveness, but either way it leaves some uncomfortable questions. If Lujan was benched purely because he wasn’t getting the job done, it would seem that is partially on the coaching staff for not having him prepared. If his lack of preparation was due to a lack of practice time because of the injury, then he should not have been put back on the field in a position to fail. And if he was pulled because it became clear he could not play through the lingering injury, an even more uncomfortable situation arises. If it only takes nine plays to determine that a player is still hobbled, how was he able to get past the coaches’ eyes and onto the field? It’s hard to believe that a guy would look even 80 percent ready in practice if you can tell he can’t go after that small of a sample in the game. It seems that Lujan was rolled out either unprepared or still hurt, both of which seem highly questionable when Christion and his hot hand are waiting in the wings for his number to be called.

The one thing that most Jackrabbit fans are questioning is the late call to go for it on fourth-and-short instead of kicking a short field goal for the tie that likely would have led to overtime. But this, surprisingly, is the questionable act I take the least issue with.

Hindsight being 20/20, it is very easy for anybody to say they should have kicked it. But I like the aggressiveness and the character of the call. There is no telling what would have happened in overtime. Maybe the Jacks pull it out. But both offenses had just gotten rolling late, so it seems like a bit of a toss up. Instead of rolling the dice in OT, Stiegelmeier saddled up and gave his offense a shot. If you’re not willing to bet on your offense for less than a yard in crunch time, you might need to rethink your scheme.

Yes, a field goal creates a whole new scenario and new questions, but a flash of uncharacteristic aggressiveness does show that Stieg was interested in winning this game more than he was in not losing it. And if the Jacks had broken the Hobo Day losing streak, we would likely be lauding his guts and his “Flash” formation. Alas. What could have been.