Southern Utah University (1-2) football looks to continue their winning ways in Brookings, South Dakota against No. 3 South Dakota State (2-1) Saturday, Sept. 21 at 5 p.m.
SDSU may well pose the season’s toughest challenge. The Jackrabbits have one of the most talented teams in the FCS. Las Vegas betting odds opened with the T-Birds as 28 point underdogs.
The Thunderbirds are coming off a 45-38 overtime win against Stephen F. Austin. The first win of the season mercifully put an end to a seven-game losing streak dating back to 2018.
Their opponents demolished Drake 38-10, and a local newspaper described the result as “underwhelming.” When four touchdown victories are underwhelming, that team is incredibly talented.
SUU faced two top five opponents in 2018. No. 3/4 Eastern Washington slammed SUU 55-17 on Cheney’s red turf. No. 3/4 Weber State went to Eccles Coliseum and came away with a 31-18 win.
This contest will be SUU’s last before Big Sky play begins Sept. 28. Head coach Demario Warren will get one last look at the wrinkles that need ironing before the games that truly matter.
King among those wrinkles is team discipline. SUU gave 161 free yards to Stephen F. Austin on 17 penalties. Those penalties resulted in six drive-saving first downs for the Lumberjacks and nearly cost the T-Birds the game.
In hindsight, it’s amazing that SUU won after giving up that many penalty yards. Part of the reason they did was the spectacular play of quarterback Chris Helbig. Helbig completed 35 of 48 passes for 375 yards and two touchdowns. He set or tied career highs in each of those statistical categories.
He also set a career high in receiving with two catches for 34 yards and a TD on two trick plays. Offensive coordinator Justin Walterscheid will need to continue to reach into his bag of tricks against the potent Jackrabbit defense.
Lance Lawson had a breakout game for the T-Bids against SFA. The sophomore caught 13 passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns. His ability to make defenders miss is becoming a cornerstone of Walterschied’s offense.
SUU’s rushing attack improved against SFA, but has struggled thus far. The ground game ranks 96 of 116 teams despite the total offense ranking 61 in yards per game.
South Dakota State boasts all of the statistical menace of a top five team. They have a top five defense are in the top five of interceptions and have beaten their two FCS opponents by a combined score of 76-13.
SDSU’s starting quarterback, J’Bore Gibbs, hasn’t played since the team’s season opener against the University of Minnesota. His backup, Kanin Nelson, has been a serviceable game manager in relief, throwing for 267 yards and three touchdowns.
The running game is where the Jackrabbits shine. They rank tenth in the nation in rushing yards per game and Pierre Strong (243) and C.J. Wilson (164) are among the most talented ball carriers in the FCS.
Keys to the game:
1. Limit Penalties.
These teams are barely in the same universe when it comes to penalty yards. The Jackrabbits have only had 11 penalties called against them all season. SUU have had 30.
The T-Birds will need to play a close to perfect game to compete with a team of this caliber, and it starts with limiting free yards. If SUU have more than six or seven penalties they’ll have no chance against the more polished Jackrabbits.
Penalties happen. It’s near impossible to completely eliminate them, but silly mistakes like offsides and personal fouls need to be cleaned up. There’s no way to shoot momentum down faster than a dumb personal foul on third down.
2. Stop the run.
If Gibbs isn’t back in time, South Dakota would much rather stuff the ball up the middle and nurse the clock than risk playing from behind with Nelson.
The foundation of their offense is a handoff to Strong. Strong is fast and, as his name would indicate, tough to tackle. SUU’s defense has struggled to slow down the run in the early going (only five FCS teams have given up more rushing TDs).
SDSU’s defense is scary good, and playing from behind while they rack up first downs (and thus buy time for the defense to rest) will end the game early. SUU’s up-tempo offense puts pressure on defenses, but doesn’t give their own defense enough time to rest between series.
Strong and Wilson can put together long, bruising drives that tire out defenses. There’s nothing more demoralizing for a defense than being dominated by an imposing offensive line.
3. Third down conversions.
This key goes hand in hand with key number two. Extending drives means more time for the defense to get ready for their next series.
The Jackrabbits are No. 45 in the nation in defending third downs. The T-Birds are No. 65 in third down conversion. Helbig needs to use his athleticism to move the sticks.
SDSU’s defense will swallow up poorly run routes, so Lawson, Isaiah Diego-Williams and Carlos Baker will be tasked with creating separation through precise cuts.
On the other side, SUU is ranked No. 73 in third down defense. SDSU is No. 37 in 3rd down conversion. The T-Birds have made stops with some success, but have been undone by penalties and missed assignments. Third down scrambles need to be shut down.
From there, it’ll take some fortunate breaks. Turnovers will play an important factor. SUU will likely run multiple trick plays. Underdogs don’t usually win by simply outplaying their opponents. The T-Birds need luck on their side.
The game will be broadcast on gojacks.com beginning at 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25.