Blitz ‘em and beat ‘em.
SDSU’s defense stood strong for the duration of the game, keeping the visiting Aggies’ offense off the board and racking up seven sacks. In the process, the Jackrabbits took care of UC Davis via running back Zach Zenner in their home opener, winning 12-8 in front of 11,532 people at Coughlin-Alumni Stadium in the Cereal Bowl Sept. 15.
In just his third game and his first home game, redshirt freshman T.J. Lally took full advantage with 10 unassisted tackles, four sacks and the game-sealing fumble recovery as UC Davis desperately tried to lateral the ball around to keep the game alive. Ross Shafrath had nine tackles for the Jackrabbits.
“It was mentally taxing,” Shafrath said. “The intensity was up the whole game and there wasn’t a lull, so we had to be up the whole game.”
Offensively, Zenner continued to carry the load for the Jackrabbits (2-1).
Zenner, the reigning Missouri Valley Football Conference offensive player of the week, ran for 197 yards and picked up a touchdown in each half. His 61-yard touchdown run in the second quarter brought the Jackrabbits within two points with 9:07 left. He gave the Jackrabbits the lead with his 23-yard touchdown run with 13:33 left. The Jacks attempted two-point conversions after both touchdowns and failed to convert on each occasion. Humble as ever, Zenner deferred credit to his offensive line.
“For the run game, it’s all about wearing down the defense and you have to have that mindset that you are getting stronger and the defense is getting weaker,” he said.
Zenner wraps up the third week of the season, leading the Football Championship Subdivision in rushing yards with 658 yards on 78 carries. He duels with the second-leading rusher Shakir Bell — with 610 yards of his own — of Indiana State this weekend.
“He’s a very special player. He’s a South Dakota State running back,” SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier said of Zenner, subtly hearkening back to the Rabbits’ running history with the likes of Josh Ranek and Kyle Minett.
UC Davis (1-2) took the lead in the second quarter on a 69-yard interception return by Jonathan Perkins. Lined up in the “Swinging Gate” formation, the Aggies converted a two-point conversion for an 8-0 lead with 10:01 left in the first half.
Save for a few big plays, UC Davis head coach Bob Biggs said he thought his team did a good job of keeping Zenner in check.
“For the most part, we contained him,” Biggs said. “He’s a workhorse. It’s a strength of what they do offensively.”
In the end, it wasn’t enough to just slow him down, because UC Davis could not get inside the Jackrabbits’ 35-yard line on offense, and SDSU’s defense shut down Aggie quarterback Randy Wright all day.
“That’s the way football is meant to be played,” Stiegelmeier said. “It’s going to be a play here and a play there, and we ended up making more than they did.”
Unlike in each of the last two seasons, SDSU comes away from its non-conference schedule with a winning record and heads to Terre Haute, Ind., to start Missouri Valley play. The conference opener with the Sycamores will loom large over SDSU’s playoff hopes, as a win would put SDSU at 3-1 with back-to-back home games against Missouri State and Western Illinois ahead.
“You make hay when you’re in the conference,” Stiegelmeier said. “To have two FCS victories going into conference is important. You just keep on track, and let’s see how good we can be in the end.”