BROOKINGS, S.D. — It was only a decade ago the South Dakota State University Jackrabbits climbed from the NCAA Division II ranks to Division I, joining the FCS and qualifying for the postseason in the program’s second year of eligibility. That 2009 season came to a close with a loss to the Montana Grizzlies, but SDSU has been building ever since.
Fast forward to 2017 and the Jackrabbits came within one game of a national championship appearance, falling to eventual runner-up James Madison in the FCS semifinals.
The climb to national prominence has been an impressive one, something Montana State coach Jeff Choate has taken notice of.
“I think that there are so many guys that play for this team, in and out, the continuity that they have with the staff, the commitment that they’ve made as an athletic department to the sport of football, with the facilities they have, it’s amazing to look at what this team has been able to do coming up from a Division II program not that many years ago,” said Choate.
Montana State’s coach is aware of the challenge facing his team Saturday, going on the road against the No. 3 team in the nation inside Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium. South Dakota State had its season-opening game canceled due to weather after only two drives a week ago, trailing 7-0 against Iowa State just minutes into the game, leaving the Jackrabbits antsy for kickoff against MSU.
Choate and the Bobcats earned an impressive win of their own last weekend, taking down Western Illinois 26-23 in the final minutes, with linebacker-turned-running back-turned quarterback Troy Andersen leading the charge on offense. The second-half adjustments by Andersen and the offense were notable, but Choate hopes to see more balance on Saturday evening.
“We need to probably let the running backs have the ball more. If there was one critique that I would say, ‘Let’s maybe hand that off a little bit more because really we don’t know,'” Choate said of his running game. “Isaiah (Ifanse) had eight carries or something like that. I don’t know what Isaiah can do based (on that). We ran one play. It was pretty simplistic. I thought we did what we had to do to win the game, but certainly we have to be willing to let those young backs go, whether it’s him or Lane Sumner or (Karl Tucker II) or whoever it is. The element of surprise is still in our favor with the running backs, I guess you could say.”
“I think there are some things he’ll learn a ton from,” Choate continued, discussing Andersen. “A lot of our route combinations are based on, is it a split safety? A post safety? Knowing where to go with the ball. I think there were some easy things he would now be able to look at and go, ‘Oh yeah, I can see why I should have done that.’ You can have scrimmages, you can have seven-on-seven and practice and all that, but there’s no substitution for those game reps. I think having the opportunity to look back and go, ‘Oh yeah, I can see why that would have been a better decision there.’ He’s such a smart kid. I’ve said it before, he’s a one-rep guy. He may make a mistake the first time, but usually not the second.”
Montana State’s defense will also be tested Saturday, with South Dakota State finishing 2017 in the top 20 in total offense (438.6 yards per game) and sixth in scoring offense (37.2 points per game). The Jackrabbits also ranked fourth with 319 total first downs.
Kickoff is scheduled for 5 p.m. MST at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.