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Fresh off a dominant season-opening football win, South Dakota State now sets its focus on Saturday’s matchup with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and if the stuff on paper is anywhere near accurate, the Jackrabbits should breeze to a win.

According to VegasInsider, the third-ranked Jackrabbits are 53 1/2-point favorites over a Pine Bluff team that split its first two games against non-Division I opponents.

Pine Bluff (1-1) drubbed NAIA foe Cumberland University 55-0 last week, but the Phoenix play in the same division as Dakota State and Dakota Wesleyan. Pine Bluff fell in the season opener to Division II opponent Morehouse College 34-30.

While South Dakota State might enjoy a big advantage on paper over the Golden Lions, Jackrabbit coach John Stiegelmeier cautioned that the Pine Bluff team coming to Brookings is fast and athletic. Stiegelmeier, now in his 22nd year as coach, isn’t worried about his team overlooking the opposition.

“Every week, regardless of the opponent, the battle is inside you to improve,” Stiegelmeier said. “In reality, Arkansas Pine Bluff this week is no different than James Madison (which stung SDSU 51-16 in last year’s FCS semifinal game). You are playing for something different, but the goal is to play better than you did last week, so that’s how we are approaching (the game). Regardless of who you play and what their record is, we need to be ready to play.”

That said, the Golden Lions of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, have struggled in recent seasons, owning an 11-44 record over the past five full years. Cedric Thomas was hired as head coach of Pine Bluff, his alma mater, this offseason in hopes of turning the program around.

Pine Bluff managed only a split in its first two games, but it should be noted that the team has been without running back KeShawn Williams. The senior led the team with over 1,000 total yards from scrimmage last season, but has yet to see the field in the 2018 because of an injury. In his absence, the Golden Lions have relied heavily on their passing attack to move the football.

Junior quarterback Shannon Patrick is in his first year as a starter and already has established a connection with junior wide receiver Josh Wilkes. Through two games, Patrick and the 6-foot-3 Wilkes have connected 14 times for 420 yards and four touchdowns.

The Jackrabbits secondary will be tested by the big play potential of Pine Bluff, with Wilkes owning an average of 30 yards a reception. Three more Golden Lions receivers have at least five receptions and an average greater than 15 yards a catch.

“There are good athletes on that team and we saw that on film,” SDSU senior cornerback Jordan Brown said. “They’re going to make plays. We just have to make tackles and keep everything in front of us.”

Pine Bluff collected 527 total yards of offense against Cumberland. Of that total, 363 yards came through the air.

In the first game of the post-Dallas Goedert and Jake Wieneke era, the SDSU offense didn’t struggle to move the football in a dominating 45-14 win over the Big Sky Conference’s Montana State last Saturday.

Senior quarterback Taryn Christion had a hand in five of the six touchdowns the Jacks scored. He threw four touchdowns to wide receiver Cade Johnson and ran for another as the Jackrabbits established a balanced attack that gained 193 yards on the ground and 319 yards through the air.

Johnson filled the stat sheet in the win over Montana State, earning him Co-Offensive Player of the Week honors in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The 5-foot-10 sophomore notched 138 yards receiving and tied an SDSU record for single-game touchdown receptions, with four of his nine catches resulting in six points.

Establishing a balanced attack will be critical for the SDSU offense against Pine Bluff. With the strength of the passing game under Christion’s senior leadership and a Golden Lion defense that has surrendered more than 400 yards rushing in only two games, the Jacks should have plenty of opportunities to move the football on Saturday.

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Sports Editor

Sports reporter for the Rapid City Journal.