Iowa vs. South Dakota State; Path to Victory

Iowa South Dakota State

The Hawkeyes kick off the season inside Kinnick Stadium where they’ll host an FCS opponent for the first time since 2018. The South Dakota State Jackrabbits finished the 2021 season with a loss in the FCS semifinals, and now visit Iowa City for the week one matchup on Saturday. The Jackrabbits will again be one of the top teams in the FCS this season. Their powerful offense averaged 442 yards per game last year while scoring 36 points per game. This is no early-season warm-up game for the Hawkeyes. They’ll be faced with a similar challenge to that of the 2016 season. Then, the defending FCS National Champions North Dakota State came to town and upset the Hawkeyes with a field goal as time expired. 

Coaching Consistency

South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier is one of just four FCS coaches to have a longer tenure with their program than Kirk Ferentz. Stiegelmeier has been the head coach in Brookings since the 1997 season. His 26 years as the head man at South Dakota State is two years longer than Ferentz’ tenure at Iowa. Stiegelmeier attended South Dakota State and served as a student assistant in 1979. His first season as a position coach with the Jackrabbits was in 1988. Since taking over as head coach, he has led the team to 11 FCS playoff appearances and a second place finish in 2020-21. 

Jackrabbit Balance

On The Ground

The experienced Iowa defensive front will get tested straight away in Saturday’s contest. South Dakota State was the number one rated rushing team according to Pro Football Focus last year with a rating of 93.2. Their leading back totaled over 1,600 yards and has since moved on to the NFL. This season, running back Isaiah Davis will be getting the bulk of the carries. Davis was injured in the first game of the 2021 season but came back to help the Jackrabbits make a playoff push late in the year. On just 95 carries in 2021, Davis mounted an incredible 701 yards. His seven-and-a-half yards per attempt was third best in the FCS last year with a minimum of 50 touches. 

In The Air

The Jackrabbits were fourth in the FCS last year at just under five-and-a-half yards per carry and averaged 212 yards per game. However, it’s not just the run game where this team excels. At quarterback, Mark Gronowski will be making his return to the field after redshirting the 2021 fall season with an injury. As a true freshman in the FCS Spring season of 2021, he started the final 10 games, leading them to the National Championship. He was injured in that game, and the short offseason led to his redshirt last fall. 

In the Spring season, Gronowski threw for 15 touchdowns, and three interceptions, and rushed for an additional 600 yards with seven touchdowns. However, when he decided to tuck it and run, the true freshman fumbled seven times that season. It’s been since the spring of 2021 that the Jackrabbit quarterback has taken a game snap. Gronowski is decisive in the air and can be effective on the ground. However, his ball control as a runner is questionable. Iowa has a knack for winning the turnover battle, and the young quarterback who hasn’t seen the field in some time will be tested.

At receiver, the Jackrabbits have some returning playmakers in twins Jaxon and Jadon Janke. Each averaged more than 15 yards per catch last season and totaled over 1,800 yards receiving. This team has depth at receiver and tight end and gives Gronowski great options at his disposal. South Dakota State put up just north of 3,400 yards on the ground and matched that number through the air last season. They had a great distribution of play calls and were equally effective in both phases.

The Matchup

For the Iowa defense, they’ll have their hands full defending the Jackrabbits’ balanced attack. Their play distribution is almost even, putting the ball on the ground just above 50% of the time. One of the key difference makers in this game will be how Iowa’s front seven matches up with the Jackrabbits’ run game and how the pressure at the line translates into defending a passing game that is just as effective. The group up front has preseason All-American Jack Campbell at linebacker and a slew of veteran defenders. Back deep, Riley Moss is another preseason All-American who will be tested early by the Jackrabbit passing game. 

For the Hawkeyes, winning this game will start on defense. Against a team that is strong in both phases of the offense, the path to victory for Iowa against South Dakota State is forcing them to play to just one dimension. A lot of the reason for the Jackrabbits’ success is that their run game and pass game are complimentary. One continually opens up the other, giving them opportunities to be successful in different ways. The Jackrabbits have shown their ability to be more than successful in both areas, and the key to stopping that is shutting down one of those phases. 

Iowa Hosts South Dakota State

Ultimately, South Dakota State is at a talent disadvantage when it comes to matching up with the Hawkeyes. They succeed as a program in a similar way to Iowa. They develop under and un-recruited players into a disciplined roster of FCS National Title contenders on a yearly basis. Their production on a year-to-year basis is no small feat. However, the Hawkeyes are playing a similar kind of developmental football with players that are a tier or two above those of the Jackrabbits.

However, talent doesn’t equate to wins, and South Dakota State is coming to town with a chip on its shoulder. They are 2-9 against FBS competition. Iowa is their lone FBS opponent this season, and they are bringing an upset-hungry team to Iowa City. For the Hawkeyes, it will be a defensive test in week one. Iowa will need to work to shut down one of the South Dakota State offensive attacks to avoid what their opponent’s neighbors to the north did six seasons ago.

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