PHILADELPHIA, PA (KELO) – Heading into the locker room trailing by a touchdown with Villanova getting the ball first to start the second half, the defense had to wake up, adjustments needed to be made.

During the next 30 minutes of football, the Wildcats wouldn’t score a single point. In fact, SDSU would never allow the Villanova offense to cross inside their own 25-yard line. Along with the 21 turnover-free unanswered points, there’s a strong argument to be made it was the Jackrabbits’ most complete half of football all season long and it came on the road with their backs against the wall.

From individual performances, to the program as a whole, here are 6 thoughts from the 35-21 South Dakota State win over Villanova as KELOLAND’s Tanner Castora saw it.

  1. The Program

Over the past 10 months, I’ve tried my best to gather a feel for what the program is truly like from within while also trying to gather a sense of the community surrounding South Dakota State as a whole. I’ve found Jackrabbit fans be very passionate and opinionated about their team, as every fan base surely is. I would tend to believe most alumni and fans are well aware of what this program has accomplished over the past decade or so, but for those who don’t, I hope you’re aware of what’s in front of you.

There are 128 football teams that play in the FCS. With Saturday’s win, four of the past five seasons South Dakota State has now been one of the last four teams still standing. Over the past five years, there’s been different names under center, different weapons among the offense, different stars on the defensive side of the ball, but what has been constant is the coaching staff.

  • John Stiegelmeier is in his 25th season at the helm
  • Assistant head coach Jimmy Rodgers was a captain on the Jackrabbits’ first FCS playoff team in 2009 and has been a part of the coaching staff since 2013
  • Offensive Coordinator Jason Eck has been with program for 6 seasons
  • Passing Coordinator / Wide Receivers coach Luke Schleusner has been in Brookings since 2014
  • Co-Defensive Coordinator Brian Bergstrom joined the staff in March of 2017
  • Defensive Line Coach Christian Smith is in his 5th season with SDSU
  • Quarterbacks Coach / Recruiting Coordinator Zach Lujan is in his 4th year with the program as a coach after being named team captain as a quarterback at SDSU in 2015 & 2016
  • Strength and Conditioning Coach Nate Moe has been at SDSU since 2005

“Expectations when I first got here were alright we’re going to be a playoff team, then it was a first round bye team, then it was a semi-final team, and now we expect to make the national championship, that’s our expectation around here,” Senior captain linebacker Logan Backhaus said after Saturday’s win.

Good players win you football games, the kids deserve as much credit as anyone. But the men mentioned above, among others within the staff, are responsible for bringing them here. They’ve brought in talent, but more importantly, they’ve built a rock solid culture to welcome them into.

South Dakota State has become an FCS powerhouse. And that sentence isn’t so much an opinion as it is a fact today in 2021.

2. True Offensive Identity

The Jackrabbit offense has been one of the best in the FCS all season long. The numbers will reflect that. But even so, I never felt they were quite the unit they wanted to be. In their 14 games played this season, only twice had they thrown it more times than they’ve ran it:

  • The first came in their home loss to Southern Illinois : 31 passes / 29 rushes (20 from Strong Jr)
  • The second came in a Hobo Day loss to Northern Iowa : 53 passes / 25 rushes (14 from Strong Jr)

The Jacks calling card is physicality. Although they’ve shown the capability to air it out, they’re a run first team and that’s been the case for most of this season. But that objective has intensified the past three weeks in the playoffs with obvious reason due to the return of star sophomore Isaiah Davis.

Isaiah Davis strides across the goal line and into the end zone Saturday against Villanova
Courtesy: Brad Frandsen

The Jacks have ran 189 offensive plays through their first three playoff games. They’ve thrown it 32% of the time for 409 yards while running the ball 68% of the time for 917 yards.

For comparison purpose, the Jackrabbits threw the ball 42% of the time throughout the regular season while running the ball 58% of the time on offense.

It’s been well documented how incredible Isaiah Davis has been since his return. Himself and Strong Jr seem to get better as the game progresses, but so does the offensive line (the tight end blocking has been terrific as well). The two units seem to feed off of one another, its been fun to watch. They’ve shown the ability to take over a football game and the play calling tells you the coaching staff agrees. The offense has begun to impose it’s will. They’re going to run the ball right at you while also adding a smooth mix of air raid which leads me to my next topic.

3. Chris Oladokun

Midway through the second quarter facing a 3rd & 5, Olakodun dropped back, couldn’t find anyone, then took off with his feet picking up 6 yards and a first down. Late in the third quarter with the game tied at 21, he placed a 38-yard dime into the hands of Jaxon Janke for the go ahead touchdown. If you were wondering about his arm strength, as the first half expired, he rather easily spun the ball 55 yards down the field into the end zone on a hail mary that would ultimately be intercepted ending the 2nd quarter.

He’s been consistent throwing for 24 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions this season (only 5 if you exclude the “why not” hail mary Saturday). He’s been reliable playing maybe his best game of the year going 19/26 for 239 yards & 3 touchdowns in the final regular season matchup against North Dakota; a game many felt the Jacks had to win to guarantee a playoff birth. But what’s possibly been most impressive is the way the young man has quietly, yet confidently taken the reigns of an established program in his last and final season in college football.

“First off all he’s an awesome person, awesome guy. I’d be honored to know him off the field without playing with him and then for him to stand behind me and take the snaps and do what he does, I couldn’t say enough about Chris,” Senior offensive line captain Wes Genant said. “I Love him to death, Love him with all my heart, he’s a baller and I hope he keeps balling out.”

4. The Janke Twins

The star of the show out on the perimeter Saturday afternoon was Jaxon Janke. The Madison, South Dakota product went over 100 yards for the 7th time this season while also eclipsing the millennium mark for receiving yards in the 2021 year. He’s shown the ability to turn screens and hitches into double digit yard gains. He’s proven himself as a skilled intermedium route runner who can catch the ball in traffic and he showed Saturday he has the straight-line speed to be a deep threat as well. With go-ahead second half touchdown catches against North Dakota and Villanova, the kid has flashed a knack for making things happen when his team needs it most.

Jaxon Janke gathers in a 38 yard touchdown late in the 3rd quarter against Villanova
Courtesy: Brad Frandsen

As for his brother, according to Saturday’s final box score, Jadon was targeted 11 times (not sure it was that many but that’s what the paper said) without hauling in a single catch. There we’re a couple of deep balls that were seemingly just a yard or two out of the reach of Jadon. He does have 36 catches and 8 touchdowns on the season but there’s been a handful of times throughout the year where he’s had a step on his defender but him and Oladokun have been just a bit out of sync… but they’re close. They’re due to connect on one soon.

The coaching staff clearly values what the junior can bring to the offense. They’ve been finding creative ways to get him more involved. He was returning kicks again this week and had several solid returns. I’d like to see him remain the primary kick returner for the remainder of this season. There was also a play late in the second quarter where he lined up in the short slot, then came flying across the formation with Oladokun pitching him the ball while in motion. It was a beautiful play design that looked to be promising as it began to unfold. Unfortunately it was blown dead due to a false start. I’m very interested to see how many touches he gets this coming weekend.

5. Amar Johnson

We’ve seen how effective the Jackrabbit offense can be with a 1-2 punch in the backfield. With Pierre Strong Jr eyeing a career at the next level, the primary running back duties will be given next season to Isaiah Davis. But Amar Johnson is going to get plenty of carries too. The freshman from O’Fallon, Missouri first flashed in week two vs Lindenwood with 15 rushes for 105 yards and a touchdown. Saturday he had 14 attempts for 64 yards and has almost silently amassed nearly 430 rushing yards this season. He has a quick first step and is very well put together, especially for a freshman. But what’s caught my eye more than anything is his balance. He has an uncanny ability to stay on his feet after first contact. We’ll find out more about Strong Jr’s status in the next few days but if he can’t go, Johnson’s time to shine may come sooner than expected.

6. Logan Backhaus and the Defense

As mentioned at the top of the article, the defense was superb in the second half pitching a shutout while forcing several turnovers. The defensive line was relentless. They didn’t take a single play off and over time would simply wear down the Villanova offensive front.

There’s several names you could single out when studying the defense but the one I want to mention is Logan Backhaus. Like many others on this team, every game from here on out could be his last in a Jackrabbit uniform; and he’s playing like it. At 6’4 210, he’s a wiry athlete who plays through instinct and plays violent. Backhaus is the leader of this defense and they’ll need his best effort this coming Saturday when trying to contain Montana State’s quarterback Tommy Mellott who will be without question the most athletic quarterback this team will face all season.

Courtesy: Brad Frandsen