SDSU at USD: Breaking down the matchup

Oct. 27—VERMILLION — SDSU vs USD. Jacks vs Yotes. Who ya got?

The Jackrabbits of South Dakota State are ranked No. 1 in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision. They've won 21 straight.

USD has won six in a row, rising from the bottom of the Missouri Valley Football Conference a season ago to the No. 4 ranking in the country. The Jacks are two touchdown favorites for the game that kicks off Saturday at the DakotaDome at 1 p.m.

It's the biggest game in the history of the rivalry and one of the biggest games ever played on South Dakota soil, er, turf.

Here's a closer look at the matchup:

Mark Gronowski's dual-threat skills and intangibles have made him the face of the Jackrabbits and one of the best and most important players in the FCS. In his three seasons as the SDSU starter, the Jacks have lost just two of the games he's played, and one was to the Iowa Hawkeyes. His impact on the Jackrabbit program is immeasurable.

But USD now has a franchise quarterback of their own. Iowa State transfer Aidan Bouman has completed 70 percent of his passes with just one interception, giving the Coyotes the confident leader their offense needed. Bouman, whose family has deep ties to South Dakota State, came to USD in part because SDSU already had Gronowski. But the big lefty has been all-in on being a Yote since joining the team last year, and would love nothing more than to make a statement by beating the defending national champs.

The Coyotes allow just 14.4 points per game, second-best in the Valley. Only SDSU has been better, limiting their foes to 12.6 (the Jacks are also No. 1 in scoring offense, averaging 39.3 points). SDSU allows 267 total yards per game (best in the Valley), ranking No. 1 against the pass and No. 2 against the run. And they've done it with their best player, middle linebacker Adam Bock, having played sparingly. Jason Freeman, Isaiah Stalbird and Saiveon Williamson are among the most athletic linebackers in the country — with Bock in the fold the Jacks are just that much better.

The defensive line has steadily improved under first-year D-line coach Jalon Bibbs, which has in turn made an experienced secondary more effective of late.

USD has a top-flight linebacking corps, led by all-conference seniors Stephen Hillis and Brock Mogensen, one of the top defensive backs in the country in Miles Harden, and a defensive line that's highly underrated (Nick Gaes and Brendan Webb have combined for nine sacks).

The Jackrabbit offensive line is the best in the FCS. It's the same unit — Garret Greenfield, Mason McCormick, Gus Miller, Evan Beerntsen and John O'Brian — that paved the way to a national championship, and it's only gotten better. The Jacks running game averages 240 yards per game and 6.8 per carry, with monster tailback Isaiah Davis leading the way. He's got eight touchdowns and averages 7.4 yards per carry (after rushing for more than 1,500 yards last season), while No. 2 back Amar Johnson is seventh in the league with 444 yards.

But the Yotes have become a physical, run-first offense themselves. With former SDSU assistant Josh Davis calling the plays, USD averages 161 rushing yards per game. Travis Theis has been a workhorse, leading the Valley with 112 carries for a total of 568 yards. Nate Thomas and Charles Pierre have combined for almost 500 yards and seven touchdowns behind him.

SDSU got to a national championship and won one by adopting the formula North Dakota State used to win nine titles. Now the Coyotes are following suit.

The offensive lines of these teams have been as good at protecting their quarterbacks as they have at opening holes for their running backs. USD and SDSU are tied for the fewest sacks allowed in the conference with six.

If there was one weakness on this Jackrabbit team it seemed to be a lack of pass rush, but they've made strides in that area. The Jacks have 11 sacks on the year and eight of them have come in their last two games.

That'll be important in the DakotaDome. Bouman isn't a mobile quarterback, so pressure could impact the game heavily. But if SDSU isn't able to get to Bouman and he can stand in the pocket with time to survey the field, he could pick them apart all day.

Josh Davis was SDSU's wide receivers coach just last year. He's got a national championship ring. Prior to that he was an all-time great wide receiver for the Jacks — he scored a key touchdown in SDSU's 2003 win at the DakotaDome, which was the last game of the Division II era between the teams.

Now he's the Coyotes' offensive coordinator, which still doesn't sit well with some on the Jackrabbits side of the rivalry.

Davis' impact has been immediate. USD runs a methodical offense that values taking care of the football. They're middle of the pack in scoring and total offense, but they average 6.7 yards per play, third in the league behind only SDSU and NDSU.

And Davis, obviously, is intimately familiar with everything SDSU does. He worked closely last year with Jacks offensive coordinator Zach Lujan and went against SDSU's defense every day in practice. He knows the personnel, the tendencies and the terminology.

The DakotaDome is sold out. How many of those 9,100 fans will be wearing red or blue? It figures to be a heated atmosphere, with fans making noise for both sides.

The Jacks have rallied for comeback wins in the Dome and they've been outplayed, too. They've also lost in inexplicably epic fashion, as we all know.

For the Coyotes, the motivation to play well in front of their home fans has never been greater. This is their chance to show the state there are, in fact, two powerful Division I football teams in South Dakota, to win new fans and take a bite out of the Jackrabbits' dominant presence across the state.

For SDSU, it's a chance for the current roster to win in the Dome for the first time. The Jacks' last win in Vermillion came in 2017, when they were led by Taryn Christion, Jake Wieneke and Dallas Goedert.

That doesn't mean they're intimidated by the Dome, however.

"I've won down there plenty," deadpanned Jacks tight end Zach Heins, who won multiple state championships in the Dome while playing for Washington High School in Sioux Falls. "We're not really worried about it."