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“Holy Nutmeg!” — South Dakota State poised to end NDSU’s recent dominance

South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier shared his thoughts about the upcoming season with us. The Jackrabbits have an opportunity to make a splash in their opener against FBS opponent Minnesota.

John Stiegelmeier (South Dakota State)

One of the most successful teams in college football history, North Dakota State has dominated the FCS in recent years, winning the national championship during seven of the past eight seasons. However, it seems the Bison are likely to have a difficult time building on that record, particularly with the departure of head coach Chris Klieman to Kansas State and the loss of fifteen starters from last season’s undefeated team, including quarterback Easton Stick — the winningest QB in FCS history.

At least a half-dozen or more teams are chomping at the bit to snatch the title from North Dakota State in what is shaping up to be one of the most exciting seasons for FCS fans in recent memory, but the South Dakota State Jackrabbits appear to be the team most likely to end NDSU’s recent domination.

Like the defending national champions, South Dakota State — another program capable of reloading on the fly — will also be replacing arguably the best quarterback in school history in record-setting four-year starter Taryn Christion, but 23-year head coach John Stiegelmeier has an abundance of returning offensive weapons to give his new signal caller plenty of help.

Those weapons include running backs Mikey Daniel, a 6-foot, 225-pound senior from Brookings, South Dakota, who averaged 4.5 yards per carry last year, 1,100-yard rusher Pierre Strong, Jr. — the 2018 Missouri Valley Conference Freshman-of-the-Year — and lightning-quick C. J. Wilson, a sophomore from Daytona Beach who scampered for 119 yards against Youngstown State, as well as spectacular wide receiver Cade Johnson, who had 67 receptions for 1,332 yards and 17 touchdowns last season.

With the departure of Arizona State transfer Kurt Walding in early June, the starting quarterback position will likely go to redshirt freshman J’Bore Gibbs of Chicago, although junior Kanin Nelson and traditional pocket passer Matt Connors, another redshirt freshman, are also possibilities.

Gibbs and Nelson are both dual threats, but Nelson is the only one with actual game experience. The 6-4, 200-pound junior from Mitchell, S.D., saw very limited action last year yet completed 6 of 8 passes on the season, including a pair of touchdown tosses against outmanned Arkansas-Pine Bluff in a 90-6 blowout in mid-September.

(South Dakota State)

“Objectively, we have very little experience at quarterback,” Stiegelmeier told The Fanatic, adding that his returning offensive unit should make the new quarterback’s job a lot easier.

According to the longtime head coach, the quarterback situation remains “wide open” and might remain that way in the season opener on August 29th when SDSU travels to Minneapolis to take on the Big Ten’s Minnesota Golden Gophers.

“We might use a couple different quarterbacks in that game,” said Stiegelmeier. “We’ll see how it goes.”

Other key returners for South Dakota State include placekicker Chase Vinatieri, the nephew of veteran NFL placekicker Adam Vinatieri, and safety Michael Griffin II, a junior transfer from Southwest Minnesota.

All-America linebacker Christian Rozeboom, who led the team in tackles each of the three previous seasons, will again anchor what should be another solid defense.

The 6-2, 225-pound Rozeboom was credited with an eye-popping 105 tackles last season — including 53 solo tackles — while picking off a couple passes. The senior from Sioux Center, Iowa, is one of six returning defensive starters on SDSU’s front seven.

Despite losing the services of senior cornerback Marshon Harris earlier this summer, the Jackrabbits also remain deep in the defensive backfield.

“We have great depth in the secondary, so we’ll be alright there,” said the amiable 62-year-old coach and former defensive coordinator who personally shaped South Dakota State into a national power over the past two decades.

That’s a ton of experience on both sides of the ball and should pay plenty of dividends for “Coach Stig” — the winningest football coach in South Dakota State history — as he prepares to lead his alma mater to the elusive FCS title game for the first time in school history.

That’s not to suggest that there won’t be some challenges for the battle-tested coach.

South Dakota State lost both its offensive and defensive coordinators during the off-season. “In the heat of battle, we’ll have different guys making the calls,” said Stiegelmeier.

Former offensive line coach Jason Eck will serve as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. Eck, who played on the Wisconsin Badgers’ 1998 Rose Bowl team, comes from a coaching family — his father was the head basketball at the University of Toledo — and brings 19 years of coaching experience into his new role with the Jackrabbits.

Brian Bergstrom and Jimmy Rogers will serve as co-defensive coordinators. Bergstrom was initially hired in 2017 as SDSU’s safeties coach while the younger Rogers, a former South Dakota State defensive standout and ex-graduate assistant at Florida Atlantic University who returned to his alma mater in 2013, previously served as the team’s linebackers coach.

But having promoted from within, Stiegelmeier doesn’t anticipate any problems. “We should be alright as long as I’m doing my job,” he added.

One of only two FCS schools in the country to reach the postseason in each of the past seven years, South Dakota State reached the semifinals in each of the previous two seasons, losing to national runner-up James Madison in 2017 and falling to powerful North Dakota State last year.

The Jackrabbits, moreover, have an opportunity to make some serious noise in their season opener when they play FBS opponent Minnesota in late August. It’s the kind of David and Goliath matchup FCS schools like South Dakota State live for.

While the Gophers narrowly prevailed 16-13 in their last meeting back in 2009, South Dakota State would love nothing more than to defeat a Big Ten opponent for the first time in program history.

The school’s only other victory against an FBS opponent occurred in 2015 when Stiegelmeier’s Jackrabbits shocked Kansas 41-38. SDSU led 31-7 in that contest before the Jayhawks mounted a furious comeback only to fall short when they fumbled the snap while trying to kick a game-tying field goal as the clock expired.

One of the youngest teams in the country, Minnesota (7-6) finished strong last year, winning three of its final four games while ending a fourteen-game drought against the Badgers by walloping Wisconsin 34-14 in its regular season finale and then running roughshod over Georgia Tech 34-10 in the Quick Lane Bowl, so it certainly won’t be an easy task.

“We might use a couple different quarterbacks in that game. We’ll see how it goes.”

But just as North Dakota State stunned nationally-ranked Iowa 23-21 on the road on a last-second field goal in 2016 — dramatically handing the Hawkeyes their first loss ever to a non-FBS opponent while becoming only the fourth FCS team in history to defeat a nationally-ranked FBS school — don’t be surprised if the upset-minded Jacks pull this one out against a Big Ten opponent.

South Dakota State, which nearly defeated North Dakota State in Fargo during the regular season last year before dropping a 21-17 heartbreaker to the defending national champions, could potentially be unbeaten at 8-0 or sitting at a lofty 7-1 when it hosts the nemesis Bison in Brookings on October 26th in a much-anticipated rematch of last year’s FCS semifinal contest.

Despite dropping two games to their archrival last season, Stiegelmeier knows what it takes to defeat the reigning champions. In fact, his teams defeated NDSU in 2016 and 2017, beating the top-ranked Bison 19-17 in Fargo on a short touchdown pass from Taryn Christion to Jake Wieneke with a second remaining in 2016 and forcing five turnovers in a convincing 33-21 victory over their archrival the following year.

South Dakota State fans and alumni are hoping for the same kind of outcome this season. If that happens, the likely Missouri Valley Football Conference champions will probably be the No. 1 seed, enjoying a home field advantage through the semifinals, in this year’s 24-team FCS playoffs.

It’s been years in the making, but “Holy Nutmeg” — to use one of Stiegelmeier’s favorite expressions — a national championship could be on the horizon.

Darcy G. Richardson is a historian and the author of more than a dozen books. His latest is Loyola's Improbable Ramblers: 55 Years in the Making, available now on Amazon.

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