Earlier this week, Brian McLaughlin posted a piece questioning North Dakota State’s invincibility. Leading up to this weekend’s FCS kickoff, we’re going to feature a few of the teams who might be the David to NDSU’s Goliath. BR-3 South Dakota State could very well be that team if they can answer one question: how do you replace a running back who averaged 2,026 yards on the ground and slightly over 21 total touchdowns per year over the past three seasons?
If you’re the Jackrabbits, you pray to the college football gods that someone – even a duo or trio of someones – can fill in the Grand Canyon-like hole left behind by the graduation of All-American Zach Zenner. To nab a fifth straight NCAA playoff invite, the offense also needs to replace starting QB Austin Sumner and receiver Jason Schneider.
Piece of cake, right?
Head Coach John Stiegelmeier certainly hopes so.
South Dakota State is coming off a 9-5 campaign (5-3 in Missouri Valley Conference play), which included a first-round playoff road upset of Montana State. Stiegelmeier’s boys nearly pulled off the FCS shocker of the year in the second round before losing to eventual FCS champions North Dakota State at the last minute.
The 2015 rendition of the Jackrabbits will look a lot different, and they’ll have to contend with a conference that sent an FCS-best five teams to the playoffs last year. Throw in an opening weekend tilt against Kansas, and it might initially appear like their playoff streak is in jeopardy.
But as Lee Corso loves to say on Saturday mornings, “Not so fast, my friend.”
QB Zach Lujan is ready to fill Sumner’s shoes and brings a great deal of experience to the table. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound native of Anchorage, Alaska played in nine games a season ago and threw for nearly 2,000 yards and 13 touchdowns while completing 61-percent of his passes. Expect those numbers to skyrocket thanks in large part to last year’s MVC Freshman of the Year and STATS FCS Preseason All-American wideout Jake Wieneke.
Wieneke was practically unstoppable last year, hauling in 73 passes for 1,404 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also averaged just under 20 yards per catch, caught a TD pass in every league game, and went over the century make in seven others. The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder even put up impressive numbers against the big boys, catching six passes for 107 yards in a season opener at Mizzou.
The biggest issue on offense by far is replacing Zenner. Expect the task to fall to bulldozing 5-foot-10, 195-pound Brady Mengarelli, whose 332 yards on the ground last year were good for second the ballclub. There also just happens to be a new Zenner on the Jackrabbit roster: freshman Sam Zenner, brother of Zach, joins the team after an impressive prep career at Eagan High School.
The defense returns standout lineman Cole Langer and linebacker T.J. Lally. Langer enters the season having started the last 20 consecutive games. He nabbed Second-Team All-MVFC honors last year thanks in part to 49 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Lined up just behind him, Lally also earned second-team conference honors and led the Jackrabbits with 117 tackles – 9.5 for a loss – and reached double figures in tackles on 5 different occasions. Lally and Langer will need to lead a defense that was leaky at times last year in giving up 27 points or more on 7 occasions.
The Jackrabbits have every chance in the world to knock off the Big 12’s Jayhawks in the season opener. If Lujan and Wieneke can find their chemistry early, there’s no reason they can’t shred a Kansas defense that was ranked 106th in FBS play a year ago, giving up 453 yards per game.
South Dakota State will also enjoy six homes games compared to just five on the road, including four straight on its home turf following the trip to Lawrence. They also get last year’s FCS Championship participants, North Dakota State and Illinois State, inside Coughlin–Alumni Stadium.
With a favorable schedule and new firepower ready to explode on offense, the Jackrabbits should find themselves punching yet another ticket to the FCS playoffs. If they can find some cohesion by playoff time they could be the team to finally knock the Bison off their throne.