On Saturday (2:30 P.M., ESPNU), the Missouri Tigers (0-0) open their 2014 season by playing host to the South Dakota State University Jackrabbits (0-0).
SDSU enters the season ranked 10th in the FCS Coaches Poll, and 10th in the Sports Network Football Championship Subdivision preseason poll. The Jackrabbits, who have reached the FCS playoffs each of the last two seasons, and three times in five years, are one of three Missouri Valley Football Conference teams ranked in the top 10 in the pre-season, joining three-time defending national champion North Dakota State (2nd) and Northern Iowa (9th).
Head Coach John Stiegelmeier is in his 18th season at South Dakota State. Earlier this week, Missouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel talked about Coach Stig and his Jackrabbits.
“South Dakota State, I think is a very good football team,” said Coach Pinkel. “A great program. John has been there 17 or 18 years. He’s very well-respected, how he coaches, and what he does, the consistency of his winning. They won 9 games a year ago, and played two rounds in the play-offs. So, I expect to see a very good football team. They have a great quarterback and receiver. They are very well-coached, and they’ll be a real good football team.”
South Dakota State is one of the top FCS programs in the country, in part because they have many FBS-caliber players, including several of their key star players.
Chief among those star players is senior RB Zach Zenner 6’0” 215, a two-time Academic All-American as a pre-med biology student, a two-time team captain, a two-time Consensus All-American, and a two-time finalist for the Walter Payton Award (FCS equivalent of the Heisman) as the top player in the Football Championship Subdivision. Zenner’s 4529 career rushing yards ranks second in school history. He needs 218 yards rushing to become the career rushing leader in the Missouri Valley Conference. He already holds the MVC career record for all-purpose yards (5861). He’s coming off of back-to-back 2000 rushing yard seasons, including a 202-yard, 2-TD performance last season at Nebraska.
This year, South Dakota State plans to, at times, put a fullback in the backfield with Zenner. That’s in keeping with the Jackrabbits’ offensive identity, which emphasizes pro-style sets and a between-the-tackles power running game. That also plays into Zenner’s strength, as he is a big, fast, north-south type runner, capable of breaking big plays from the line of scrimmage, as evidenced by his 99-yard TD run at Kansas in 2012. His position coach compares Zenner to Carlos Hyde, the San Francisco 49ers’ 2014 second-round pick from Ohio State, and says that at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash, Zenner is “fast enough”.
“He’s just a really good player,” said Coach Pinkel, speaking of Zenner. “I mean, he’s a hard runner. He’s got great quickness…............................................ He does a great job………………………………… He breaks a lot of tackles.”
In senior QB Austin Sumner 6’5” 235, the Jackrabbits return a now four-year starter, three-time team captain, and former high school U.S. Army All-American. He’s the career record-holder at SDSU in pass completions (631), pass attempts (1,085), and passing yardage (7,824). And, he needs just six touchdown passes to become the SDSU’s career record-holder in TD passes. The South Dakota native has a career 58% completion percentage and he has averaged 7.2 yards/pass attempt for his career.
Senior WR Jason Schneider 6’5” 225 set a single-season school record a year ago, with 78 receptions, for 1088 yards and 10 TDs.
And at TE, junior Cam Jones 6’5” 250 returns from a 2013 season cut short by injury, in which he averaged two-and-a-half receptions/game for 17.5 yards/reception.
Up front, the Jackrabbits are breaking in three new starters, and they’ll average about 6’3” and 290 pounds. South Dakota State wants to hammer away between the tackles with Zenner, moving the chains, and occasionally break a big run. Then, Sumner will fake it to Zenner, and throw it to one of his big targets.
The Jackrabbits play a base 4-3-4 defense, although their strong-side LBs are defensive-back size, so their base is really more like a nickel. Their leading defender is junior middle linebacker T.J. Lally 6’0” 220, who has started every game in each of the last two seasons. He’s finished second on the team in tackles in each of the last two seasons. He’s joined up front by sophomore DT Cole Langer 6’2” 295, and on the back end by a pair of senior safeties, in Jake Gentile 6’1” 205 and Melvin Taveras 5’11” 185.
The SDSU roster features 6 players from the state of Missouri, including the likely starter at right guard, in senior Andrew Mueller, from the Kansas City area, and a pair of back-up defensive backs from Columbia Rock Bridge in Mark Pickerel and Freeman Simmons.
One of Coach Stig’s major concerns playing against Missouri has to be team speed. Missouri has it in abundance, while the Jackrabbits, even for an FCS program, don’t have great team speed. They’re physical, but they rely on execution on both sides of the football, particularly in their power running attack, to win football games.
Earlier this week, after Coach Stig identified Missouri as “the best program we’ve (ever) faced”, he said, “We’re not going down there just to experience the atmosphere (and get paid). We’re going down there to attempt to win.”