No. 3 South Dakota State is visiting Springfield this week for a historic matchup with fourth-ranked Missouri State in a Saturday 2 pm game at Plaster Stadium.
To get to know the Jackrabbits before the game, we shot a few questions over to Matt Zimmer, who covers SDSU for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls.
Here’s what Zimmer had to say about the Jacks’ start to the year:
How have you noticed the perception of Missouri State change among the SDSU fanbase? The Jacks haven’t played the Bears since 2019.
Zimmer: My first year on the SDSU beat after several years covering Division II schools was 2015, and I distinctly remember thinking the Bears would not be a contender in the D2 league I’d been covering.
While Bobby Petrino brought some instant credibility when he took over, I think the fact that the Jacks haven’t played them yet, and the weirdness of the spring pandemic season made it tough to fully embrace them as legit contenders.
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But what they did last fall certainly changed the perception, and there was a lot of buzz around Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium last Saturday when word got around that the Jacks’ next opponent was threatening to beat Arkansas.
South Dakota State’s defense has been very good to start the year. Where might a weakness be that Petrino may be able to exploit?
Zimmer: The Jacks are banged up in the secondary. Both of their starting safeties have missed games. A young cornerback group has also dealt with some injuries. And they were already going into the season needing to replace their best corner and best safety.
I wouldn’t call it a weakness, necessarily, because so far they’ve held up really well, but they haven’t faced an offense like this one. In particular, Jason Shelley is unlike any of the SDSU quarterbacks has faced so far. It’ll be interesting to see how the Jacks fare against a quarterback that capable of making plays outside the pocket.
SDSU QB Mark Gronowski was the big story going into the season as he returned from injury. Has he looked like the 2021 spring season’s MVFC Offensive Player of the Year?
Zimmer: Not yet. His numbers were poor in the opener against Iowa, but he didn’t really play badly so much as a poor performance by the offensive line, a litany of penalties and constantly terrible field position due to Iowa having an amazing punter, never gave him a chance.
He was better but still not great in a Week 2 win vs Cal-Davis, and markedly better last week against Butler. He threw for 279 yards, ran for 55 and had four total touchdowns in about three quarters of work. It was against a non-scholarship team, but he and the offense needed a game like that, regardless of the opponent.
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He’s been saying all along he feels 100% but hasn’t always looked it. I think he’s just been knocking off the rust.
Local fans know Isaiah Davis because he went to Joplin and the previous Bears coaching staff didn’t offer him. What’s made him special?
Zimmer: Yeah, that’s not a good look for the (Dave) Steckel regime. If you watched the spring season national championship you saw what Davis can do — he’s absolutely electric at times. He’s big and fast and when he gets downhill he packs a punch.
He’s had trouble getting into the second level in the early goings, which is a little concerning, but I’ve been impressed with his patience. He’s averaging 4.4 yards per carry and 78.7 per game without having a run of longer than 14 yards. He’s bound to get loose sooner than later.
Is the SDSU offense still a concern? The first two weeks were against good opponents, but does a good performance against Butler give you confidence heading into the week?
Zimmer: No question. They lost tight end Tucker Kraft to a major injury on the first series of the season, and it’s pretty obvious that new offensive coordinator Zach Lujan had built much of the offense around the future NFL Draft pick. That, coupled with Gronowski’s rustiness and Iowa’s defense being dominant, got the offense off to an unexpectedly rough start.
I wasn’t blown away by their performance against Butler, but they did enough, I think, to get their confidence back up and maybe for the first time this year get a feel for how they can get into an offensive rhythm and what their identity might be until Kraft gets back (which isn’t expected to happen until late in the season).
Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist with the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at email@example.com or Twitter at @WyattWheeler_NL. He’s also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4-6 pm