BROOKINGS — In its first game of what it hopes is a deep playoff run, South Dakota State gets a rematch with Missouri Valley Football Conference rival Northern Iowa on Saturday at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.
The first time the two teams played this season was a regular season game with playoff implications. The Jackrabbits were coming off their third loss and were on the brink of losing a chance at a first-round bye.
But the Jacks forced four turnovers and quarterback Keaton Heide threw just one incomplete pass en route to a 38-7 win. The dominant victory over the favored Panthers was enough to propel the Jacks to a top-eight seed despite losing their regular-season finale a week later to the University of South Dakota.
Had the result of the first game been flipped, the Panthers would have likely earned the first-round bye, and the Jacks would have had to play on Thanksgiving weekend. Instead, UNI hosted the University of San Diego in the first round and won 17-3.
This time around, the stakes are much greater: win or go home.
There’s a common belief that it’s hard to beat the same good team twice in a single season, but SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier doesn’t buy into that.
“We take every game by itself. We don’t talk about the last game if we’re facing a common opponent,” Stiegelmeier said. “For us, why would we not play our best football? Our senior class, we’re in the playoffs, we’ve worked so hard — some guys for five years. Why not? Why would we think about something that would prevent that?”
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He also said the coaching staff is expecting to see a lot of the same things from UNI they did in the first meeting. Though, there will be a few major differences in who will be on the field this time around.
UNI returns its leading receiver, Isaiah Weston (41 catches, 1,040 yards, 10 touchdowns), and second-leading rusher, Tyler Hoosman (380 yards and four touchdowns). Both players were out with injuries the first time the Panthers traveled to Brookings.
“We don’t (expect to see a lot of different things),” Stiegelmeier said. “We think they’ve got a lot of things within their package already. So, we’ll see a variety, especially on defense. They do a really good job changing things up.”
On the Jacks’ injury front, Stiegelmeier says running backs Pierre Strong Jr. and C.J. Wilson are both questionable. The Jacks running game has been noticeably less threatening since their top two rushers went down, but Stiegelmeier says neither player will be 100%, even if they’re cleared to play.
“There’s no doubt that those two guys are difference makers when they’re healthy,” Stiegelmeier said of the running back duo. “They won’t be totally healthy — neither one of them — if they play. So, that ability to go the length of the field still may not be there. But I think in terms of depth, in terms of different running styles, in terms of explosive outside type plays, I think both of those guys bring a different element to our offense.”
Saturday’s game will mark the first career playoff start for redshirt quarterback Keaton Heide. For the season, Heide has completed 71% of his passes for 905 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions — the bulk coming in the four games he’s started since coming in for the injured J’Bore Gibbs.
“I believe he’s gotten better every day,” Stiegelmeier said. “He doesn’t miss a beat in practice. … Our coaching staff is very confident in him.”
Kickoff is scheduled for noon (MST) at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium. Television coverage can be found on ESPN3. Radio coverage will be provided by 90.7 KSDJ and additional live coverage can be found on Twitter through @CollegianSports.