John Stiegelmeier is in his 17th year as head football coach at South Dakota State, but won’t take credit for the Jackrabbits’ prodigious leap in the last decade, from Division II into the Football Championship Subdivision.
“I’ve been blessed to be a part of history like what we went through,” said the 56-year-old Stiegelmeier, who’s also an SDSU alumnus and has spent almost half his life associated with the school.
“Everybody just rolled up their sleeves and went to work,” Stiegelmeier said Monday, five days before the 13th-ranked Jackrabbits take on No. 3 Eastern Washington in a second-round FCS playoff game at Roos Field in Cheney.
Four years after playing the likes of Valparaiso and Wisconsin-LaCrosse, the Jackrabbits were in the FCS playoffs for the first time, losing 61-48 at Montana in the first round. A year later, they missed the playoffs, but went toe-to-toe with Nebraska, losing by only 17-3.
SDSU took another leap forward last year, reaching the second round before losing to Missouri Valley Conference power and eventual champion North Dakota State, 28-3.
And while the playoff portfolio is still skimpy – SDSU is 2-2 all-time in the FCS – it was fattened considerably last weekend with a 26-7 first-round win at Big Sky Conference runner-up Northern Arizona.
After finishing in a four-way tie for second in the rugged MVC, the Jackrabbits (10-4 overall) stuffed the Lumberjacks all day, recording seven sacks and holding NAU to 53 yards rushing.
Trailing 7-0, SDSU reeled off 26 straight points to earn the trip to Cheney.
While the MVC has a reputation for physical play, Stiegelmeier’s team has seen it all this year, from run-oriented teams such as North Dakota State to the spread.
“We see a variety if things, just like the Big Sky does. You have to play every play like it’s your last,” Stiegelmeier said.
Against Eastern, SDSU will come out of a two-tight-end set, which blocks effectively for the nation’s rushing leader, Zach Zenner, who has 1,944 yards and 22 touchdowns and averages 5.9 yards a carry.
Quarterback Austin Sumner is completing only 58.2 percent of his passes, but has been intercepted just eight times while throwing for 18 touchdowns. Leading receiver Jason Schneider has 1,007 yards on 72 catches, including 14 touchdowns.
The most impressive stats are on defense, where SDSU is holding opponents to just 28 touchdowns in 49 trips in the red zone. The Jackrabbits’ plus-16 turnover margin – which incldes 22 interceptions – ranks fourth in FCS.