On and off the football field, ZZ tops the charts.
That would be South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner, the leading rusher in the Football Championship Subdivision – and a future doctor. As much as Zenner appreciates the blockers up front, he’s even more grateful for coach John Stiegelmeier running interference off the field.
“The coaches here make academics a priority,” said Zenner, a junior biology major. “I’m not the only one – plenty of guys miss practice because of challenging majors. That’s just the norm here.”
The other norm: winning football, despite moving up from Division II in 2004. The 13th-ranked Jackrabbits (9-4), who visit Eastern Washington in a second-round FCS playoff game on Saturday, are making their third FCS playoff appearance in five years. They’ve won five games in a row, including a dominating 26-7 first-round win at Big Sky Conference runner-up Northern Arizona.
In that game, the 6-foot, 220-pound Zenner rushed 30 times for 249 yards against the top-rated defense in the Big Sky. “I had some good holes, thanks to our O-line,” Zenner said.
Described by Stiegelmeier as a “one-cut” back, Zenner has an upright running style that has produced some big runs; he’s averaged almost 20 yards on his 21 touchdown runs.
Zenner had just a 5-minute window to chat earlier this week – he was between classes – but said he came to SDSU from Eagan, Minn., partly because of the smaller community and the family atmosphere and stability in the football program.
Zenner has responded in kind, moving up from special teams to one of the premier running backs in the country, all the while helping the Jackrabbits consolidate their gains after moving up from Division II.
“Before I came here, I didn’t know this history, and I didn’t realize the importance of it until now,” Zenner said.
The top rusher in FCS in 2012 with 1,944 yards, Zenner finished second in the regular season behind Terrance West of Towson. West was idle last week as Towson got a bye into the second round of the playoffs, and Zenner made the most of the extra game against NAU.
But then, Zenner, a team captain as a junior, has made the most of almost everything in four years at SDSU.
“He’s just a great student-athlete… and he practices as hard as he plays, it is unbelievable,” Stiegelmeier said.
The Jackrabbits have gotten this far with a punishing ground game, huge turnover margin and a stingy red-zone defense – all while playing in what is acknowledged to be the toughest conference in FCS.
SDSU (9-4 overall) finished in a four-way tie for second in the Missouri Valley Conference, and in the process has faced enough varied offenses that the Jackrabbits aren’t shrinking from the challenge posed by third-ranked Eastern Washington.
“We see a variety of things, just like the Big Sky does,” said Stiegelmeier, dispelling the notion of the MVC as all ball-control and stingy defense.
Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin compares SDSU’s offense to that of Big Sky rival Southern Utah, but with more firepower.
Feasting on turnovers
Speaking of Southern Utah, the Eagles took something else away from their 34-10 win over the T-birds on Oct. 17.
Against a team that led the Big Sky in turnover margin, Eastern won that battle 3 to 2, a trend that’s continued for most of the season.
While not as impressive as SDSU’s plus-16 turnover margin, the Eagles (plus-2) have been out of the red since that midseason game. Baldwin said. “It’s important to avoid playing tight.
“We’re playing to win, to go out there and let it rip,” Baldwin said.
No ordinary Joe
Three hours away on Saturday, No. 8 Montana will face Coastal Carolina and its enigmatic coach, Joe Moglia.
Moglia walked away from the defensive coordinator’s job at Dartmouth back in 1983, partly because the money wasn’t very good. He spent 25 years on Wall Street and eventually became chief executive officer at TD AmeriTrade, the largest online discount brokerage in the world.
Now worth about $800 million, Moglia, 64, tried for two years to get back into coaching, finally getting the head job with the Chanticleers in December 2011. His team is 19-7 with two straight playoff appearances.