NOTE: The Big Ten has cancelled this game.
There are a handful of teams in division 1-AA (or the “Football Championship Subdivision”, as the NCAA now prefers to call it) that aren’t exactly like the others. True, many are simply “body bag” opponents there to collect a paycheck to fund their department and hope that their players don’t get beat up too badly. But there are also 1-AA schools like North Dakota State that punch well above their weight class and can give the big boys a solid challenge, especially if the bigger name school assumes that their opponent is merely going to “assume the position”.
South Dakota State competes along side North Dakota State in the Missouri Valley football conference and while they haven’t been able to dethrone the Bison yet, the Jackrabbits haven’t been thumped by a Power Five opponent since their 2013 trip to Lincoln. In 2017, South Dakota State beat Kansas (not sure we can call that an upset) and last year in Minneapolis, Minnesota needed a fourth quarter comeback to avoid the upset. (Sadly, the Jackrabbits gave the Gophers a better game than the Huskers did last season.) Last season’s Sagarin computer rankings placed South Dakota State at #95, higher than Maryland (#97), Central Michigan (#102), Northern Illinois (#124), Rutgers (#135), and South Alabama (#158). So clearly, this won’t be the worst team currently on Nebraska’s schedule.
If South Dakota State nearly upset Minnesota, how did the Jackrabbits end finishing a rather pedestrian 8-5 last season? Injuries at quarterback may have played a big part as South Dakota State played three quarterbacks in a loss against North Dakota State. True freshman Keaton Heide (6’3” 195 lbs.) took over late in the game and finished out the season as the starter, going 2-3 in the final five games. Heide completed nearly 67% of his passes for 1,072 ards and seven touchdowns with three interceptions. Prior to that, it was primarily J’Bore Gibbs (6’3” 230 lbs.) taking the snaps; in his six games prior to his season ending injury against the Bison, he completed 59% of his passes for 1,058 yards and ten touchdowns with four interceptions. Also seeing some action during the season was senior Kanin Nelson (6’4” 200 lbs.), who completed 57% of his passes for 293 yards and three touchdowns.
Junior running back Pierre Strong (5’11” 200 lbs.) is coming off of back to back 1,000 yard seasons. Last season, the first team all-conference running back rushed for 1,018 yards and eight touchdowns, earning him 1-AA All-America consideration by Phil Steele and the AP. But with his primary backup, CJ Wilson, entered the NCAA’s transfer portal in February, leaving a hole behind Strong on the depth chart. Redshirt freshman Devin Blakely (5’10” 175 lbs.) rushed for 101 yards in three games last season.
Senior wide receiver Cade Johnson (5’10” 180 lbs.) will be looking to shine on the field where his father Clester starred 25 years ago. The younger Johnson earned 1-AA All-American honors last season by catching 72 passes for 1,222 yards and eight touchdowns last season after catching 67 passes for 1,332 yards and a school record 17 touchdowns as a sophomore. Sophomore Jaxon Janke (6’2” 210 lbs.) caught 29 passes for 353 yards and four touchdowns, earning him freshman 1-AA All-American honors. Jaxon’s twin brother Jadon Janke (6’3” 210 lbs.) primarily contributed on special teams last year, but might be in line for more playing time in 2020.
Three starters return on the offensive line, with senior guards Eagan Lickiss (6’4” 325 lbs.) and Edward Miller (6’5” 315 lbs.) being two year starters. Junior right tackle Aron Johnson (6’6” 295 lbs.) started three games as a redshirt freshman before starting every game last season. This may surprise people, but South Dakota State’s offensive line might be the biggest that Nebraska will face in their first three games. (Neither Purdue nor Central Michigan have a returning starter on the offensive line heavier than 295 pounds.)
South Dakota State had one of the top defenses in division 1-AA last season, finishing the season sixth in scoring defense (16.7 points per game) and seventh in total defense (294.8 yards per game). The Jackrabbits were outstanding defending the pass, ranking fourth in passing yards allowed (165.8 yards per game) and fifth in pass efficiency defense. Up front, South Dakota State is led by senior defensive tackle Xavier Ward (6’2” 290 lbs.), who’s started 26 straight games for the Jackrabbits. Junior defensive end Reece Winkelman (6’4” 250 lbs.) tied for the team lead with 6.5 sacks last season, while sophomore defensive end Quinton Hicks (6’3” 235 lbs.) excelled as a pass rushing specialist with five sacks, earning him second team freshman 1-AA All American honors.
Senior linebacker Logan Backhaus (6’4” 205 lbs.) earned honorable mention all-conference honors last season and ranked third on the team with 79 tackles. Backhaus’ four interceptions tied for the team lead and nine total passes defended topped the Jackrabbit stat sheet. Senior linebacker Seven Wilson (5’9” 205 lbs.) was second on the team with 83 tackles last season.
Senior cornerback Don Gardner (6’1” 185 lbs.) earned second team all-conference honors last season, leading the secondary with six pass breakups. His 45 tackles ranked fifth on the team last season, trailing senior safety and Papillion, Nebr. native Josh Manchigiah (6’0” 210 lbs.) who had 53. Senior safety Michael Griffin (6’0” 215 lbs.) led the Jackrabbits last season with six turnovers (four interceptions and two fumble recoveries) and was sixth in tackles with 40. Sophomore transfer Isaiah Stalbird (6’0” 210 lbs.) from Kearney could also be a contributor as well this season. Last season at Nebraska, Stalbird had 13 tackles, a forced fumble and a blocked punt.
But perhaps the biggest worry about this game is whether it will actually be played. Sure, Nebraska wants the home game revenue (even if attendance is limited), but a warning signal flashed bright red last week when athletic director Justin Sell told Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports that South Dakota State is not testing their athletes for COVID-19.
“That hasn’t been part of our deal. If testing is needing to be part of that ability to play, we’ve got to work within our state … and figure out the financial impacts of that.”
Problem is, can Nebraska afford to take that risk that an opponent isn’t able to take the same precautions to protect the athletes? Combine that with the thought that the schedule might need to be shortened to protect players and coaches as we head into the colder months of the year, and frankly, this game has to be the easiest to cancel in 2020.
What’s your prediction for September 19, 2020?
This poll is closed
The Jackrabbits nearly got the Gophers last year in Minneapolis. They get a Big Ten win this year in Lincoln.
It’s ugly, but the Huskers get the win.
Like last time South Dakota State came to Lincoln, it’s a Big Red Blowout.
South Dakota State stays north, as this game ends up being cancelled.