Top-ranked South Dakota State defense embraces 'no-name' moniker

Jan. 5—BROOKINGS — Consider the phrase: No-name defense.

Is it a backhanded compliment or the ultimate praise? Is it somehow a bit of both?

No matter which, the top-ranked South Dakota State defense has heard the "no-name" label bestowed upon them — a nickname popularized by the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the lone NFL team in history to complete an undefeated Super Bowl-winning season — and latched onto it.

"I view 'no-name' defense as everyone doing their job and everyone is living up to the standard," said SDSU defensive coordinator Jesse Bobbit, who took over the role this season with the promotion of now-head coach Jimmy Rogers. "It's not just a couple of players, it's everyone. If you want to be the best defense in the country, which we are, that's how it has to be."

This season, the Jackrabbits rank first in the FCS in scoring defense (9.7 points allowed per game) total defense (257.1 yards per game) and red zone defense (59.4%), and they're fourth in takeaways (26).

SDSU held nine opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards, matching the number limited to fewer than 200 passing yards. Four teams didn't reach either threshold against the Jacks.

Despite the successes that came with being far-and-away the No. 1 defense in the FCS, not a single Jackrabbit was among the 30 semifinalists for the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the most outstanding defensive player in the subdivision. Senior linebacker Jason Freeman was the lone Jackrabbit to receive an FCS All-American nod, getting third-team recognition from Stats Perform. SDSU's defense was not represented on the AP or American Football Coaches Association All-American teams.

"It just goes to show what we can be as a unit because we have very, very talented guys," said safety Tucker Large. "I think hearing us called the 'no-name' defense is kind of funny. That just throws fuel onto the fire, honestly, but it is what it is. We all have a job to do, and if we do it to our standard, we come out on top almost every time."

During these FCS playoffs, SDSU has shut out two of three opponents, allowing just 12 points to Villanova in the quarterfinals, and recorded seven takeaways, with six by interceptions.

After being maligned early in the season for failing to record a single sack in the first three games, the Jacks have at least one sack in every game since, including multiple in two of three playoff games.

While they may disagree with the awards snub, the Jacks recognize that they're victims of their own dominance. SDSU's style of team defense, which features playmakers at effectively every position and rotates frequently to keep players fresh, doesn't rely on a few individuals to make the bulk of the plays and accumulate gaudy statistics.

However, when merged, SDSU's statistical leaders produce a stat line as well-balanced as the defense that created it: 96 tackles (7.5 for loss), six sacks, four interceptions, three forced fumbles plus recoveries and two blocked kicks.

Six players, two representing each level of the defense — linemen Cade Terveer and Ryan Van Marel, linebackers Jason Freeman and Isaiah Stalbird and defensive backs Tucker Large and Dalys Beanum — led the team in at least one major defensive category. Several more weren't far behind.

"When you really look into it, we have some dudes at all three levels of our defense," said defensive end Quinton Hicks. "We don't care about accolades or statistics. You can see it on the field where no matter who makes a play, everyone is cheering. There are no egos."

Perhaps, then, it's not that SDSU has no names on its defense. Instead, it has too many to list succinctly.

A whopping 18 Jackrabbits — considerably more than the 11 who can step on the field at any given time — have been directly involved in creating a turnover by coming up with an interception, forced fumble, fumble recovery or a combination of the three. Additionally, 12 players have at least 25 tackles to their credit this season (another surplus) and seven pass rushers have multiple sacks.

Even with that level of production, both individually and collectively, Bobbit believes the Jackrabbits have bought into the mentality that "it's never good enough."

That is, until they reach the finish line.

Come Sunday afternoon at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, the Jackrabbits' defense, and all the standout individuals who comprise it, will take the field looking to raise the standard one final time this season and prove an emphatic point.

"I think there's some motivation to (being overlooked individually), but at the end of the day, the goal is a national championship, and that's the biggest award you want, the ultimate goal," said Bobbit, who played on the last Jackrabbit team to play Montana, a 24-17 loss in Missoula during the 2015 playoffs. "We're excited to play a team that we haven't played (recently), and I think everyone is hyped up and ready to make another statement."