We’re inching closer to Iowa’s season opener against South Dakota State on Saturday morning, but with no prior matchups between the two programs it’s time to take a deeper dive. In the words of the wise and sage like Big Tom Callahan, you can get a good look at a t-bone by sticking your head up a bull’s rear end, but wouldn’t you rather take the butcher’s word for it?
With that in mind, just as we will be doing each and every week of the season, we sat down with an expert on all things South Dakota State to take his word for what we should expect out of the Jackrabbits on Saturday.
That expert is none other than Matt Zimmer of the Argus Leader, Sioux Falls’ daily paper. Matt has been covering South Dakota State for nearly 15 years and was kind enough to share his thoughts and insights about Saturday’s matchup. Here’s a look at our discussion.
BHGP: The fall 2021 season was obviously a good one for the Jackrabbits, ending in a semifinal loss to Montana State, but it was also played without spring season starting QB and Missouri Valley Offensive Player of the Year Mark Gronowski. How does his return this fall change what South Dakota State looks like on the offensive side of the ball after boasting a top-10 scoring offense (36.1 ppg) in 2021?
MZ: It’s hard to say how different the offense might be because there’s a new coordinator and it remains to be seen if Gronwoski can still be a running threat coming off an ACL injury (and how much SDSU wants to use him as one and risk another injury).
But it’s likely going to be an explosive offense again. When Gronowski was last under center in the spring, they were still trying to figure out how to replace wide receiver Cade Johnson (now with the Seahawks) and how to use their tight ends.
In the fall season, wideouts Jaxon and Jadon Janke developed into legit ace wideouts and Tucker Kraft and Zach Heins established themselves as NFL caliber tight ends.
Running back Isaiah Davis is right there with them. A long way of saying we don’t know exactly what to expect from Gronowski and new offensive coordinator Zach Lujan, but we know there are plenty of weapons for them to work with.
BHGP: The Hawkeyes are notorious for their bend, don’t break defense under Phil Parker that gives up yards hoping to force opposing offense into long, sustained drives to earn points under the assumption that’s a difficult task and abundant turnovers are likely to result. But the Jackrabbits finished top-4 nationally in 2021 in turnover margin with just 12 giveaways all year. How do you foresee SDSU approaching this stingy Iowa defense and is there a weakness for the Jackrabbits the Hawkeyes can look to exploit?
MZ: I suspect they might try to loosen things up with the short passing game, and then involve Davis, hoping that if they force the D to come up to stop the run they can hit a couple over the top to the Jankes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they challenged them by trying to establish the run early, either.
The weakness of the SDSU offense is, potentially, the right side of their O-line. Their left guard and left tackle are both All-Americans and the center was a solid contributor at right guard last year who they think will be even better at center. But the right guard and right tackle are new starters. Maybe they’ll step right in and be great. Maybe not.
BHGP: On the other side of the ball, Iowa has been notorious for offensive struggles, but are breaking in a pair of downhill running backs expected to find a bit more success behind an offensive line that loses a top-20 pick in center Tyler Linderbaum but figures to be improved in the run game. How does South Dakota State’s defensive line stack up and how do you expect the Jackrabbits to defend the run on Saturday?
MZ: What the Jacks D-line has lacked in elite, NFL-caliber talent, it has made up for in depth. Last year they played 8-10 guys most games, and it really paid off in helping them win some matchups they maybe otherwise wouldn’t have. They’re hoping to do pretty much the same thing this year, but they lost 3-4 of their top guys. They have some others they think can step in to allow them to maintain a deep rotation, but against a team like Iowa they may not have that luxury.
With some question marks in the Jacks’ secondary, it could be a good day for the Iowa offense if they control the line of scrimmage.
BHGP: Related, Iowa QB Spencer Petras has shown a lot of tools in his time at Iowa, but has also shown a tendency to get happy feet, often panicking with limited pressure while at other times time feeling very real pressure. That led to a significant drop in his touchdown to interception ratio a season ago. How do you expect the Jackrabbits to try to attack Petras and what should Hawkeye fans expect coverage wise to potentially take advantage of his past issues?
MZ: Traditionally, SDSU has been a stay at home, stay in their base defense that doesn’t blitz much. But they’re not stubborn and they have a lot of speed at linebacker, so they may try to bring more pressure than they typically do. They seem to have a knack for bringing a corner or safety blitz at the right time, too, so that’s something to watch for.
Iowa’s tight end is going to be a big focus for the Jacks defense, and I expect SLB Isaiah Stalbird, a converted safety who started his career at Nebraska, to be keying on him much of the day.
BHGP: This is Iowa so we have to talk special teams. That was a major strong suit for the Hawkeyes a year ago, but turnover leaves several questions on the Iowa side of the ball. Conversely, it seems South Dakota State had some issues in special teams in 2021. Do you expect them to be improved in that aspect of the game Saturday and throughout the season?
MZ: The Jacks’ kicking game was pretty solid last year; their return game less so. This year I think the return game should be better - they have some explosive guys back there and won’t hesitate to use their top offensive weapons.
The kicking game is a big question mark. Cole Frahm was a reliable and big-legged kicker. Now he’s being replaced by Hunter Dustman, who is also the team’s punter. He had a good year as a punter last year, but is completely unproven as a kicker.
BHGP: Ok, prediction time. There’s no Vegas line on this one as of this writing, but South Dakota State has covered their last six spreads when playing an FBS opponent, including a pair of wins last year. How do you see this one playing out and what’s your prediction for the final score?
MZ: The numbers say this should be a low-scoring game, but with it being the season-opener I think there could be more points than people are expecting. I think SDSU’s high-end talent keeps them in the game most of the day, but ultimately Iowa’s depth and size/speed advantages win the day.
Iowa 31, SDSU 21
So there you have it - a double digit victory for the Hawks in their season opener with 31 points on the board. Would Iowa fans be satisfied with such an outcome? Will the Jacks make it even more interesting and perhaps pull off the upset? We’ll know soon!
Thanks again to Matt Zimmer of the Argus Leader, a capital “J” journalist, for taking the time to help us get an inside look at South Dakota State. Be sure to stop over to argusleader.com and check out some of Matt’s work both on this weekend’s matchup, as well as the Jacks’ team heading into 2022.
You can also follow Matt on the Twitters @argusmattz. There’s great content there as well, including this college football preview with Zach Borg of Dakota Sports Now, and much, much more.